Student’s bright idea leads to voice-controlled lighting

Edmonton—Not many people think about light bulbs. You flip a switch and you've got light. Not much beyond that. But when second-year computer engineering student Brandon Evans learned about the Philips Hue network-controlled LED light bulbs, he quickly came up with a unique idea.

The Hue allows people to adjust the lighting via an iPhone or iPad app. You can raise and lower brightness, change the colour temperature of individual bulbs, or schedule on-off cycles, among other tasks. Evans wanted to take the process a step further.

“The Hue interested me, but there’s no official API,” he said. “Some people had figured out the protocol it used to communicate and posted it online. The first thing I thought of was that it would be cool to control it with my voice.”

So after picking up a Hue starter pack—three light bulbs and the controller for a rather steep $200—he started tinkering with them and SiriProxy, software that allows users to add unsupported functionality to Apple’s speech recognition service, Siri.

After only a few afternoons tinkering with the system, Evans had his code working and was able to control the lights using his voice.

“It was maybe six hours total. I was really just building off of other people’s work.”

Even with some of the parts for his project already existing, the hack is still quite complex. A user issues a voice command to Siri, such as “turn down the lights in the hall,” which is then sent to Apple’s servers to be translated into text. When it’s returned, instead of Siri replying that it doesn’t understand the command, the response from Apple is intercepted by a computer running SiriProxy in the user’s home and interpreted there. The desired task is relayed to the Hue system and a separate response is sent to the user's device to confirm it.

Still, even with its complexity, Evans’ project took off around the Internet, being reported on by various technology and Apple-specific blogs. After a few weeks, the video demoing the hack has been viewed nearly 90,000 times.

“A friend submitted a link somewhere and it just kind of took off,” he said. “It’s a big hack, and I don’t think many people would go out of their way to do it. But it’s kind of like the future, so people see the video and think ‘Oh, I want that’.”

Even with all the attention it received, Evans doesn’t plan to do much more with the project. He’s going to clean up the code and release it publicly for others try it and build off it.

“I didn’t really expect it to get noticed. I just had an idea and was messing around.”

You can watch Evans’ Siri-Hue hack in action above, or read more about his process on his website.