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Immersive TV from color-changing smart lighting?

Philips syncs to SyFy's "12 Monkeys" to connect Hue LEDs with the drama onscreen. After tuning in to the first episode, here are our takeaways.

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What were you up to last Friday evening? Perhaps you were home with your family, or out kicking off the weekend with your friends. I, on the other hand, was plopped on a couch in the break room of CBS Interactive's Louisville offices. My mission? Watch the debut of SyFy's new apocalyptic time-travel drama "12 Monkeys" -- complete with coordinated color-changing Philips Hue lighting effects that harken back to the days of Ambilight.

I was joined by my colleagues Rich Brown and Megan Wollerton, and together, we took in each scene and shade as they synced up for our enjoyment. And all in all, we did enjoy it -- though we came away perhaps a bit underwhelmed with the integration.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Light as novelty

Smart lighting is at an interesting place right now. We've seen the cost of connected LEDs come way down in the past year, and that's put pressure on existing smart bulbs to justify their higher price points.

Hue leans on its platform to thread that particular needle, which makes sense given how well it's matured over a few years of open-API development. In addition to a well-polished app , you'll find all sorts of outside integrations designed to get more out of Hue lighting, including feature-rich third-party control apps and nifty connections with outside platforms, and with popular services like IFTTT, too.

Beyond all of the wonky stuff, there's the obvious novelty factor, which the SyFy integration clearly seems aimed at embracing. There's nothing wrong with that -- we've long maintained that Hue's more gimmicky qualities are all part of the appeal. Compared with less expensive smart bulbs that offer much of the same basic functionality, the gimmicks that go into Hue lights and other color-changers like them actually become an important part of the value proposition. Truthfully, I went into Friday evening wondering whether or not the synced-up lighting would be novel enough.

Immersion most mild

Philips' SyFy integration works by way of a special app that you download to your Android or iOS device. Sync the app up with your Hue lighting, then set it to listening mode. As the episode plays, it uses the specific audio cues of the episode's soundtrack to cue preprogrammed lighting changes.

That's the same cool trick that Philips used for last summer's lighting integration with ." I still haven't watched either one with Hue lights following along (viewing each one once felt like enough to me), but I have to imagine that both integrations were at least little bit more high-concept, what with the flying sharks, spattered blood and chainsaw heroics.

In the case of "12 Monkeys," the lighting changes showed a surprising level of restraint, cycling softly through the dominant tones of each shot, sometimes lingering on a particular shade for minutes at a time. At one point in the pilot episode, the protagonists attend a party in a glitzy mansion with yellow walls and golden accents. Our Hue lights stayed appropriately yellow for the entirety of the scene, even through a sudden burst of action that changed the tone altogether.

During another scene, the characters are standing near a cop car with emergency lights flashing across their faces. I thought for sure that the Hue lights would start alternating red and blue tones, which would have had the neat, immersive effect of mimicking the specific light shining in our heroes' eyes. Instead, the bulbs simply averaged out to purple.

For the most part, the lighting changes stayed focused on following along with what was on screen rather than playing with mood, tone, or metaphor. The one exception were the moments in the pilot depicting a dystopic, plague-ridden future -- many of these scenes came accompanied by a putrid shade of green.

The wildest lighting changes came during the climax of the episode, though, which (spoiler alert) involves an explosion induced by a time paradox. The unique, sci-fi-appropriate colors of the blast made for perfect Hue fodder as our heroes darted away to safety. If anything, the moment served as proof of concept for the entire exercise -- I just wish that Philips had dialed the cool factor up to a similar level for at least a few other scenes.

Of course, too much lighting trickery would have distracted from the episode itself, and to this end, I imagine Hue was simply erring on the side of caution. With the episode's focus on establishing a world and its plot, that may have been the right decision for this specific integration. Perhaps Philips is waiting for "Sharknado 3" before throwing caution, with at least a few great whites, to the wind.

Josh Miller/CNET

A colorful horizon

Hue's integration with SyFy might also speak to a larger trend of deeper immersion with home entertainment. VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus are lurking on the horizon, and Samsung Gear VR is already here -- the push for immersion is legit. Synchronized lighting effects might be a far cry from the other-worldly Oculus Rift, but the appeal comes from the same place.

To this end, Hue's lighting integrations might be better served in the world of gaming, where immersion is often the aim already. We've already seen some particularly clever Hue hacks for Minecraft and other PC games, along with mobile gaming integrations for the Lifx smart bulb. I know I'd be more inclined to pick up a Hue starter pack if the bulbs would sync up with my PlayStation 4 -- I'd also be more inclined to try out games that took advantage of such an integration.

This last point might be the biggest takeaway from Friday's viewing party: it didn't leave me tempted to run out and buy the bulbs for myself. It was an interesting experience, and it made me keenly more aware of the episode's visual shifts, but it wasn't one that made me reach for my wallet.

On the other hand, if I were already a Philips Hue owner, I think it'd spark enough of my curiosity to get me to tune in if I hadn't planned on it already, and probably to give it another shot with the second episode (the integration with Hue will continue for the entire first season). At very least, it'd remind me of what my bulbs were capable of -- and with new Hue competitors out there, maybe that's exactly the point.