Connected Home for the Holidays
With Christmas right around the corner, you may be looking for a few last-minute things to put under the tree. There are connected gadgets everywhere you look this year; here are a few of our favorites in the smart home and OTT categories:
For sound sleepers: Philips Hue (starter kit includes hub and three LED bulbs for $189)
When we first saw the Philips Hue bulbs at CES a few years back, the novelty factor of these color-changing connected LED bulbs was unmistakable – but they weren’t something we zeroed in on as particularly useful. Boy, were we wrong.
For the stubbornly sound sleepers in your life, Hue bulbs can be a game-changer. I use them with the Sleep Cycle alarm for iPhone ($0.99) and now I wake up to soothing music and the rising sun on my nightstand. It’s so much better than a shrieking alarm clock in a dark room, particularly for those of us that tend to slap the snooze bar and keep on dreaming about the beeping explosive device we just disarmed while the rest of the family wakes up angry. You can also set the bulbs to light up on a schedule, if you prefer your own alarm clock.
The Hue bulbs work with dozens of other applications – and the API (Application Programming Interface) and SDK (Software Development Kit) are open so your favorite tinkerers have the freedom to develop their own apps for the bulbs. There are also frameworks like IFTTT that work with Hue bulbs, turning them into subtle notification devices that tell you when you get an important email, or when your loved ones touch down at the airport. You can also set up geofencing with your mobile device to turn on your lights when you get close to the house.
I could go on all day about the different ways you can use these bulbs, but suffice it to say I picked up my own set shortly after testing them in the lab.
The hue system consists of a hub (which uses a hard-wired Ethernet connection) and 3 LED bulbs, which connect to the hub using ZigBee radios (one hub can support up to 50 bulbs; each additional bulb will cost you $60).
For anyone with WiFi: Belkin WeMo Smart Outlet ($39)
This single connected outlet is a great way to connect dumb objects to the Internet. Just plug it in and set it up on the home WiFi network, then you can use the WeMo app to turn the outlet off and on from anywhere in the world, or set it to operate on a schedule. Perfect for turning off power-hogging devices overnight, remotely controlling Christmas lights and space heaters, and shutting off the iron you forgot to unplug before you left for the office. Like the Philips Hue bulbs, WeMo devices work with IFTTT to connect to other apps and devices – so when you leave the iron on, you can have it send you a text to alert you.
For the person who loses everything: Tile ($25-$180)
These little Bluetooth-powered trackers attach to your stuff and work with a mobile app to help you find the stuff you lose. Stick or keychain Tiles on your bag, your keys, or, in Leslie’s case, her irreplaceable, Lake Erie-sourced “Smiling Rock,” and use your phone to locate them when they go missing.
Leslie’s “Smiling Rock,” with a Tile affixed using the optional adhesive patch.
There are a few notable limitations. Chief among them: Tile’s search-and-find capabilities are powered by Bluetooth, meaning, not GPS. So you won’t be in the luxurious position of harrumping to the luggage claim agent, “I said Oakland, not Auckland!” — because it can only find your stuff if it’s within the Bluetooth range of the app. Rats!) But if you’re trying to zero in on which pile of counter clutter swalled your keys, or where the dog delivered the remote, it’s aces. The Tile app will show you when you’re getting close, and the Tile itself will play a little tune and vibrate until you find whatever it’s affixed to.
The Tile app supports up to 8 Tiles, and you can buy each tile for $25 – but you’ll get a discount for buying packs of 4, 8, or 12 (packs of 12 come out to the best deal at $15 apiece).
For your favorite Prime subscribers: Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40)
We got a great deal on this streaming dongle back in October, when Amazon let Prime customers order it for $19. But at $39, it’s still a solid device with a slick interface that is a lot more responsive than the Roku Streaming Stick ($49).
Fire TV — also available as a $79 set-top box, with a voice-controlled remote — will be a welcome addition to any household with Amazon Prime (it also has apps for Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and Showtime plus some free content). The dongle is super easy to set up, and if you order it through your Amazon account it’ll show up at your door already signed in to your account (order it as a gift or pick it up at a retail store if you’re purchasing it for someone else, unless you want them streaming movies from your Prime account). My parents, the original cord-nevers, ordered one and they love it – in fact, Dad even says he prefers it to the Roku I got them a few years back.
While Visions of Wearables Danced In Their Heads
For those of us headed to the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which happens a scant four days after the New Year, the holiday season necessarily includes shaking the network to get a deeper look at what’s planned.
You won’t be surprised at the outlook, but here goes.
First: UltraHD/4K is the new 3D, which had been the new HD, before the marketplace thud that hastened it out the door. The refrain this year, albeit not necessarily from the CE side: There’s more to better pictures and sound than “just” the television set.
This year, watch for UHD lingo studded with impressively nerdy terms like “high dynamic range,” “color gamut,” and “bit interleave depth.”
All explain additional ways in which innovation is happening throughout the rest of the video ecosystem — think cameras, production gear, and the technologies of storytelling. If you go, you’ll see it in the way colors look. Blacks look downright velvety, reds look royal, greens mossy. The picture overall is brighter. Much brighter.
(Talk to any hardcore video engineer — HDR and what’s happening with color and brightness is as “wow” as when standard definition video went high def.)
Second: Wearables, coupled with a new-ish term — “cognitive computing” — described as “mobile devices that anticipate your actions based on who you are, who you’re with, and make decisions for you.” (Great…)
While it’s rare that the dazzle and pop of CES fare is directly relevant to this industry, wearables and cognitive computing do open a plausible stream of thought: What decisions could be made for us, that improve our media-centric life?
Note that it’s likely we’ll see more “smart clothing” this year. Already we’ve seen a blazer, designed for tourists in New York and Paris, and equipped with LED lights on the sleeves, and buzzers in the shoulder pads. The thinking: Stop looking at the blue dot on the screen! Your right arm will blink and buzz when you need to turn right.
Again. CES is CES.
Third: Smart homes, smart cars, driverless cars, smart things — sensors will sustain in show floor glitz. Entire pavilions will be cordoned off to showcase the Internet of Things, always a source of weird and interesting gadgetry, but rarely directly relevant to whatever it is we’re calling the cable industry these days.
Regardless, there’s nothing quite like the Consumer Electronics Show. This will be my 15th consecutive year as (tres dorky) guide for CTAM’s tours, and while I generally dread it on the front end, I’m always glad about how it went, it at the end.
We’ll keep the highlights coming.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.