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The Philips Hue whirlwind shows no sign of slowing down at CES 2019

It's the number one name in smart lighting, and at CES 2019, Philips Hue's Head of Technology walked us through the ways the brand plans to keep it that way.

George Yianni, Head of Technology for Philips Hue.
Ry Crist/CNET

The Aria is buzzing with activity. At the bottom of a bank of elevators, over a dozen individuals stand holding signs representing various companies exhibiting at CES 2019. There's a lady with a PayPal sign, a flurry of yellow-jacketed Snapchat reps and countless others, all waiting to escort journalists up to the casino's Sky Suites to meet with company executives.

Me? I'm here to see some smart bulbs.

What's new with Hue?

The escort waiting for me holds a sign for Philips Hue. She guides me up the elevator and into the suite, where I'm welcomed by George Yianni, the brand's Head of Technology. The suite has been made over for Hue's purposes, with a newly expanded collection of color-changing outdoor fixtures filling the room and green astroturf carpeting the ground. 

Currently available in Europe only, these paper lantern-like Hue Flourish fixtures, which include a table lamp and multiple ceiling fixtures, are coming to the US in 2019.

Ry Crist/CNET

"We wanted to bring the outdoors inside," Yianni tells me.

After a quick chat about the outdoor lights, we step into another room that's filled with all sorts of light switches and fixtures, all of them connected to the Hue app on Yianni's phone. Most aren't made by Signify, the Philips Hue parent company formerly known as Philips Lighting. Instead, these high-end fixtures are made by manufacturers in the Friends of Hue partner program.

"There's an appetite for so many different light designs, and we can't do them all ourselves," Yianni says, proudly showcasing the growing variety of smart lights Hue can automate in your home. He goes on to show me a few that Signify does make for itself, a set of Philips Hue Flourish fixtures that look like paper lanterns. They currently sell in Europe only, but Yianni tells me that Signify will be bringing them to the US later this year.

The Flourish fixtures each feature two sets of lights that you can control individually. I ask for a demonstration, and Yianni is happy to oblige -- unfortunately, the app is filled with so many lights that he can't figure out which ones are which. After fumbling with it for a minute or so, he gives up and apologizes. It's the first time in years that he didn't set up the suite himself, he explains.

New from Philips Hue and the Google Assistant -- voice fades, including 30-minute morning fades that sync with your alarms.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Following up on features

It's hard to blame Yianni for not having time to personally set up the demos at the suite. He's a busy guy these days, responsible for driving the strategy of a top-tier lighting brand that wants to stay at the forefront of the connected home. 

To do that, Signify is always working on new products, features and integrations, as evidenced by a whirlwind 2018 that saw the addition of dozens of new products to the Philips Hue lineup. Earlier in the morning, along with the new outdoor lights, the company announced new Google Assistant voice fades that'll let you ask your smart speaker to "sleep the lights" or "wake the lights" for a gradual, 30-minute dim. You can also set those fades to trigger automatically ahead of your Google Assistant voice alarms each morning.

"For me, it's about getting this biological impact that light can have on your body to be easier and more natural to experience," he tells me. I ask if you can adjust the length of time on those fades -- you can, he says -- and also if you can tweak the color scheme on your morning alarm fades, which start as a dull orange and gradually shift to daylight as they grow brighter. Yianni says that you can't.

"We're going to be prescriptive about what makes sense physiologically," he explains. Bummer for folks who like purple or green.

Signify sees huge potential for Hue Entertainment, which syncs the color of your bulbs with what's playing on your TV -- but the feature still needs more development.

Ry Crist/CNET

I go on to ask about another big initiative for Philips Hue called Hue Entertainment that syncs the color of your smart lights with the content on your TV in real time. The brand showcased the feature in a suite just like this at CES 2018, and the demo was impressive, but there haven't been any notable new partners for it in the year since. You can't sync it directly with a streaming service like Netflix or a video game console.

In a perfect world you'd be able to run the Hue Sync software that powers Hue Entertainment directly on your TV, perhaps as an app on your cable box or gaming console. Hue isn't there yet -- you still have to connect a PC to your TV to make it work, which is less than ideal.

"There are things that are close, but they've been close for a while," Yianni admits, pointing to anti-piracy concerns and telling me that they create a lot of technical and contractual tape that's difficult to cut through. 

"We think it's going to be as big as surround sound," he adds, "but it needs to be as easy as surround sound." For PC gaming, Yianni thinks the feature is there, pointing out that Hue Sync will now automatically begin the real-time lighting effects when you start playing a compatible game, then automatically stop them once you've finished. Beyond that, Hue Entertainment still needs a lot of work.

That wraps things up. After saying so long, I head back down the elevator only to head right back up for my next meeting. Not far from Hue's setup, Lifx has a Sky Suite of its own (click here for my rundown of all of the interesting tidbits I learned at that meeting). After that, I'll zip across the Strip to the Venetian, where I'm scheduled to chat with the team at GE Lighting. Both have new, color-changing bulbs of their own coming out this year.

Philips Hue is well aware of the growing number of competitors, including heavyweights like GE that haven't sold color-changing bulbs until now. And in 2019, as we saw in 2018, it looks like Hue is betting that the best defense will be a good offense.

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