6 smart light hacks for Christmas holiday decor

There are two types of people when it comes to lighting up the house for the holidays; the gung-ho Clark Griswold types, and those for whom the thought of climbing a ladder in the cold inspires dread.

If you’re in the latter camp, know there are easier ways to make your home festive thanks to technology.

Holiday Hack #1: Smart Plugs for Automation

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Want to control your Christmas lights from another room, or even another city? Smart plugs like the WeMo Switch allow you to plug in virtually anything, from Christmas lights, to mobiles or animated figurines and turn it off an on with your smartphone or tablet. This works really well for tree lights in particular, since crawling under or behind the tree to pull out the plug is often a pain.

Smart plugs can also be used on automatic timers, coming on at dusk and turning off when you want.

Holiday Hack #2: App-connected string lights

Plaubulb string christmas lights smartMiPow, makers of Playbulb lights has come out with a smart connected string light for this holiday. These smart LED light strings give you smart functionality via a Bluetooth connection; you can turn them on or off with your smartphone, adjust colour to dozens of different subtler hues, you can set timers, or use a handful of special effects, all automatically. Best of all, these are for indoors or out.

With a kit like this you don’t even need a smart plug. Read my full review of String here.

Holiday Hack #3: Stick-up LED Lights go anywhere

img_7356-2The amazing thing about smart lighting is how versatile and flexible it is. Case in point; a couple new LED string lights that are thin, pliable and flexible so you can stick them up anywhere.

Philips Hue String, Osram Lightify Flex and MiPow Playbulb Comet are just three great examples of lights you can stick anywhere for holiday decor.  If you use removable 3M Command adhesive tabs, it makes moving them and removing the tape even easier.img_7347-2

Use these light strips on the inside of a window frame to show your neighbourhood your red, green or icy blue colours. Coil them into frosted glass vases for temporary colourful lamps, wrap them around large mirrors, or stick them under furniture for holiday ambiance.

Want to go to another level? Nanoleaf Aurora is a unique set of flat plastic panels that can be stuck pretty much anywhere; you can use them to create a holiday-themed wall decoration, and adjust the lights to flicker red and green or frosty blue and white.

Holiday Hack #4: Make a light-up Christmas Tree

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Feeling creative? Why not use the Aurora to create a flat panel Christmas tree in a small space where a real tree is just not realistic? Simply arrange the triangular shaped panels in a tree shape, configure the panels to turn green (go for a gold on on top, reminiscent of a star!) and you’re holiday ready!

Read my review and all about the Nanoleaf Aurora here.

Holiday Hack #5: Use a wireless lamp in your table settingimg_9005

Table setting is an art, if you ask me. Matching dishes to napkins and selecting florals requires some level of flair which I struggle to achieve. That’s where I pull in smart lamps; I can turn the Mipow Sphere glass globe green to match my good china, or I can set the Philips Hue Go lamp to a cool snowy hue for a winter feast. The Go lamp also works well under the Christmas tree to give it some extra colour pop or by the fireplace.

Holiday Hack #6: Use coloured bulbs for decor

img_9003As I’ve written before, smart lights are an easy way to decorate your home for any occasion. Painting your room with light can warm up a room, cool it off, or give it a holiday theme with the touch of an app. Lights like Philips Hue smart bulbs can be set to holiday red or green easily, you can use LIFX’s ‘scenes’ to create a holiday glow, or employ a MiPow Playbulb to provide both a light show AND music from its built-in speaker!

Holiday Hack #6: Use the Internet of Things to automate … ANYTHING

img_7355-2If you haven’t experimented with IFTTT (If This Then That), you’re missing out.  IFTTT uses apps and smart devices to create actions that happen automatically. I wrote about how you can use it to turn coloured smart lights blue when snow is in the forecast.   But you can also use it for holiday fun. Need a quick lesson on how it all works? Click here.

If you own a smart doorbell and some smart lights you can use an IFTTT ‘recipe’ to play Christmas music on a Sonos speaker when the doorbell is pressed, and to set lights flashing green and red. Read more about how to do that, or to achieve the same effect with a motion sensor, via the Yonomi app here. You can also surf the IFTTT website for holiday light and sound recipes that have already been created and borrow one that suits you.

Do you have a Holiday hack or IFTTT recipe we should try? Post your ideas in comments below!

Where to get holiday + Black Friday tech in Calgary

I got a special sneak preview of two things I think readers of the blog will enjoy. One is an exciting new place to shop for tech and gadgets. The other is a heads up on some sweet tech deals for Black Friday. And I mean seriously good… skip ahead for a peek at what you’ll want to rush out and get for this holiday season! Continue reading “Where to get holiday + Black Friday tech in Calgary”

Carpets that glow; the future of flooring

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It can be hard for a business to stand out. Signs and email marketing campaigns are old school. How about making an impression from the ground up?

What are Luminous Carpets?

Brand new lighting technology is allowing for LED lights to be imbedded in carpet, meaning companies can display directions or even advertisements to people in ways they’re not expecting.

A system called Luminous Carpets lets you touch your smartphone or tablet, and then lights under your feet brightly display images or words. Even dynamic moving images are an option.

Just a few ways Luminous Carpets can be used:

  • Draw in crowds at tradeshows, with eye-catching floor displays
  • Greet and guide hotel guests, making them feel welcome
  • Go hand in hand with the aesthetics of your building, with high-quality carpet material that looks good even when the lights are off.

 

luminous_carpets_teatro_madrid“Luminous Carpets combine Philips LED technology with resilient but luxurious looking Desso carpet, explains the website for the technology, “The result is a durable, stylish flooring solution that you can use to greet, impress and inform people in new and exciting ways.”

Luminous Carpets can be connected to electrical or IT infrastructure, and synced to run a variety of pre-programmed light displays. Or, you can change the lights on-demand from tablet and any other networked devices.

How Luminous carpets work

The thin LED panels and lights pair with ‘light transmissive carpet tiles’ to allow light to shine right through the carpet on the floor. The LEDs are built into enclosed units that are strong enough to be walked on while still protecting against liquids or spills, and they’re designed not to overheat.

While the business and commercial applications are obvious, it could be pure fun to have something like this in a  home. Sick of your boring beige carpets? Why not sparkle things up with gold lights? Celebrating a birthday? You can write a bold welcome message for the celebrant’s arrival. Think of the fun you could have.

Want to find out more? Check out the website.luminous_carpets_cubics

Amazon’s new Kindle Paperwhite Review: take another look at an e-reader

kindleE-readers have been around a long, long time. Even so, there’s still heated debate among book lovers about whether digital can really match the tactile experience of a printed book.

Amazon was one of the first to release a mass-market e-reader in 2007; it sold out in about 5 hours, and readers have been soaking up digital books ever since.

What’s the e-reader allure?

When I first heard about the Kindle, I didn’t get it. I mean, I got it. It’s an eReader that can store a bunch of eBooks and that lightened your load and all that stuff. But I didn’t get why you’d want to get a Kindle when you could just download the Kindle app on, in my case, an iPad. Continue reading “Amazon’s new Kindle Paperwhite Review: take another look at an e-reader”

The Nanoleaf Aurora smart light is really amazing

nanoleaf-4First we had fire, then electricity. Tesla, Faraday, and Franklin pioneered the technology behind electricity, and then Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. The way we light our homes really hasn’t changed much since that auspicious day in 1879. The lightbulb is round, it screws into a fixture, which requires a tradesman to install; electricity is dangerous for the uneducated.

Forget the bulb, there’s a whole new way

But now, a Canadian company has really, actually, reinvented the way we light our homes. Nanoleaf, based in Toronto, has invented lightweight, flat plastic panels that fully illuminate, change colour, morph and swirl. They’re bright, responsive and fully configurable, both in terms of how you place the lights, and how you operate them. This lighting system is called Aurora, and yes, it’s deliberately named after the Northern Lights phenomenon known as Aurora Borealis. Continue reading “The Nanoleaf Aurora smart light is really amazing”

New Charging Technology – CTV Tech Talk

erin-nov-2This month on CTV Tech Talk, I showed gadgets for keeping your phone charged and ready.

Get a longer cable belt-cable-native-union

I hate short charging cables. There’s nothing worse than having your nose to the wall, crouched on the floor by an outlet, waiting for your phone to recharge, while still trying to use it.

The Belt Cable from Native Union is a soft, braided cable with a leather tab to help you keep it rolled up and untangled. It comes in 4-foot, 8-foot and 10-foot lengths, giving you a lot of options when you need to be plugged in. I’m able to use my iPad while reading in bed, even though the nearest outlet is across the room.

Rock a nicer dock

dock-charging-native-unionLet’s face it, most charging cables included with our devices are designed to be utilitarian, but isn’t it nice to have lovely things? I think this heavyweight charging Dock from Native Union is sculptural and sexy.  The simple design may look basic, but it holds my phone securely, and still lets me see the screen clearly, and access it easily.  The weighty soft rubberized metal base ensures your phone stays put, and the rose gold brushed metal backing plate give it a touch of style. If you need it to, the whole thing comes apart and folds flat .

charging dock heavy native unionKeep your cable where you put it

night-cable-native-unionThe Native Union Night Cable is a braided cable with a weighted ball on the end that lets you place it on a table, and it keeps the end of the cable where you can always find it. The ball can be moved up and down the length of the cable so you can adjust how much cable is sitting out.

These cables are super durable and stiff, which makes them largely tangle-free.

A cable with a built in alarm

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Ever wonder if your spouse if sneaking your phone while you’re asleep? Have you caught your kids sneaking into your room to recover their seized technology? This new cable might be able to help.  The Skross Buzz cable will vibrate and sound an audible alarm if unplugged. It could also come in handy if you’re charging in an airport or cafe and need to turn your gaze from your phone. Click here to read more about this cable and see a video about how it works.

MiTagg Lamp MiTagg lamp 2

The minimalist c-shaped lamp is purpose-built; the top is an LED light, with dimming abilities, while along the base are different options for charging; there’s an Apple Watch charger, a phone charger, plus a space to keep a power bank ready for when you need to grab it and go. You can use these docks individually, or all at once, with the lamp on or off.

Tech Talk Contest

This lamp would be at home in an office or a house, depending on your aesthetic. If you want to try to win one of these lamps, click here to enter the contest while it’s active.

Virtual reality for real people -Reviewing Google Daydream View

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If you think virtual reality is for kids, hipsters and gamers, think again. Virtual reality is about to come to the masses thanks to Google’s inexpensive and easy to use Daydream View headset that has just launched.

What is Daydream View?

Daydream View is Google’s virtual reality (VR) headset.  It’s essentially a pair of goggles that fits over your head to immerse you in a virtual world.  It pairs with a hand-held controller that can be used as a wand, a baseball bat, or any object you might need in your new virtual world. The headset itself is not powered or electrified in any way, so it’s completely cord-free. The viewing images come from your phone.

How does Daydream work?

The video picture is supplied by Google’s Pixel or Pixel XL phones, or using another smartphone device that supports the Daydream app; you slide the phone into the front of the headset, close the flap and secure it with the elastic loop.

The app splits the content in two so it can be viewed by each eye individually; it kind of looks like one of those old Viewmaster toys. Once inside the headset, your brain registers the individual views as one big image. As you turn your head, the image follows you.

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The controller acts as a pointer or a guide that allows you to access menus, play games and to carry out movement or motion in conjunction with what’s happening in your virtual space. There’s a touchpad on the controller which lets you swipe and scroll or click, an app-access button to help navigate, and a ‘Home’ button which lets you re-centre your cursor if things get spun around.

Audio
Audio is supplied by your phone’s external speaker, and during my testing was plenty loud enough.  The device can also be used with headphones for a fully immersive audio-video experience.

Do I need Google’s Pixel phone?

img_6264Not necessarily.  But the Pixel or Pixel XL are optimized and built to work with the headset. Google says any “daydream-ready phone” can work, so basically as long as your phone manufacturer supports the Daydream app, you’re in.

Getting set up with Google Daydream View

Check out my Unboxing video (in which I RE-box the Daydream kit) to see firsthand exactly what’s in the package; basically a set of goggles (comes in a white, gray and a rust colour), and a controller.

You’ll need to have a phone separately.  Once you’ve downloaded and launched the Daydream app you’re basically ready to dive in. Slip the phone into the headset with the screen facing you, clip it in, and then adjust the headset so it’s tight but comfortable.

What happens when you enter Daydream Home?

Daydream 'Home"
Daydream ‘Home”

The app will set you down in ‘Daydream Home’ a forested, cartoony virtual world where you’ll learn how to interact with your environment.

You’ll be guided through using your controller, how to move around, and you’ll get a taste of what you can watch, see and do.daydream-world-2 daydream-street-view

the Home world, you can access Google Streetview maps to explore popular landmarks, like the Taj Mahal. You can watch YouTube videos, check out a VR movie, or view your Google Photos collection.

What kinds of things can ordinary people do with Virtual Reality?

Tour a home for sale or check out a vacation property
Buying a new home in a city across the country? Hoping to book a sweet suite in Spain next summer? Virtual tours are just one way real people are using VR to get educated about holiday destinations, and purchases. Take a virtual tour a condo complex under construction to help decide it it’s got the right feel for you – way more immersive and helpful than staring at 2 dimensional floor plans!daydream-view

Use Daydream view to take a virtual tour of that charming AirBnB rental or to swoop through the lobby of a local hotel.

Visit Museums, see masterpieces, learn science
Virtual reality devices like Daydream View can also allow you to re-immerse yourself in your vacation experience.  Start by using Google’s Pixel phone to take 360 degree photos of your cottage, downtown San Francisco, or the pyramids, then play them back over Daydream View. You’re instantly back there, and it’s not as though you’re looking at someone else’s anonymous snaps; with Pixel phone and Daydream View, you can look down at your own feet, or even see your spouse or family posing in the picture.

Watch TV
You can also use virtual reality to tour museum exhibits, learn about the biology of undersea mammals while watching them swim around you, or even to watch videos on YouTube. Content makers like HBO, Hulu NBA and Netflix are all also launching VR content this winter.img_6705

My experience with Google Daydream

First off let me say that while I love technology and gadgets, I’m not a gamer, and haven’t been one of those people who’s been overly excited about virtual reality. So it was with a bit of detachment I unpacked the Daydream kit, readied it and strapped it on.

I’ll say the system was very easy to set up; it’s as simple as launching an app and putting the phone in the goggles.img_6687

Once I was transported to the virtual world and kind of got my bearings, I was impressed. While the home world is animated, it’s actually a great place to begin; it’s obvious you’re in a virtual world, so there’s no weird, “what’s real? what’s fake?” acclimatization.

Google Daydream view wearing size
They look big and awkward in this angle, but they’re light & comfortable.

Using the cursor I was able to go through the turorial; learning how to re-centre the cursor, getting a taste of how to see my way around.  It only took a couple minutes for me to get my vision adjusted and used to the  inside of the goggles.

There were a couple of different experiences I was able to have during testing; some animated worlds, but also real street view and photo visualizations.

I found I was able to see pixels or stippling more in the animated worlds than with photos and more realistic content, but only if I was looking for it. It’s easy enough to take your focus off the details and focus on the bigger virtual picture.

Using other virtual reality headsets, I felt like they were bulky, heavy and uncomfortable. With Daydream View, the goggles were light, soft and comfortable.  The biggest issue was there was a bit of a gap at the bottom of the goggles. I was able to remedy it somewhat by tightening the strap, but then I had the strap as tight as it would go and it still could have been tighter to hold it more securely to my face. In the end, I was just able to focus past the gap and the slight light bleed.

Overall, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this virtual reality experience with Google Daydream View. It’s easy, the quality was good, the headset is comfortable, and the virtual worlds I was able to explore were really well done and immersive. If you’re looking to get started with virtual reality,  $79 USD is a great entry point.

Check out Google Daydream here.

 

 

New Philips Hue lights & accessories review & how-to

img_6004As the days grow shorter, it’s a perfect opportunity to take a look around your home and assess whether your lighting can use an upgrade.

Philips has recently announced several new products and accessories in its smart lighting kit lineup called Hue.

I recently had a chance to test out some samples of these new lights and accessories. Regular readers, or viewers of the monthly CTV Tech Talk know I really like smart lighting for its versatility, colour changing abilities, ease-of-use, and low energy consumption. So anytime I have an opportunity to test new product, or see upgrades that have been made, I love to educate readers and viewers about what’s new, what they can expect, and if these gadgets work as they should in the home environment.

What’s new with Philips Hue

The new additions to the Philips Hue kit I tested included a motion sensor, LED adhesive strip lighting, and new more saturated coloured light bulbs. We’ll look at each piece of the kit, what makes it unique, different, or new and improved, and how well it works.

I should note right off the bat, that all of the accessories and lights in the Philips Hue kit require the use of the Philips Bridge to connect all the devices together, and  to connect your smart phone via your Wi-Fi network. A great way to join the smart lighting club is to purchase a starter kit, which comes with three bulbs and a bridge.

You will also need to the Philips Hue app, or other third-party app to control your lights and get the most from them (More on those below). With the Philips app you’ll be able to set timers and alarms, control colour changing, set scenes or moods, and group certain lights together to turn on or off in sync.

Philips Hue – Reviewing Lightstrip Plusimg_5897

Philips Hue Lightstrip plus is a flexible length of LED lighting. It will display both white or coloured light in just about any situation you could imagine. The light strip plus is completely bendable, so it can wrap around anything from a mirror frame, to a window, a headboard, or even your television.

For you feature geeks out there, the light strip plus emits 1600 lumens at 4200 Kelvin and uses AC power. Extensions to the kit are available but are sold separately.

I set up this light in a couple of ways. Though the light strip plus comes with an adhesive backing, I rigged up a temporary set up so I could move the lights from location to location in my home. I tested them under the kitchen cabinets, then underneath a sideboard in the dining room (there’s a photo at the top of the page). My final test was to wrap the light strip around our 50 inch TV in the media room.

The light strip is very versatile and easy to use with the Hue app. Though the app is not as intelligent or interesting as it could be, it works just great, allows you to use all the basic functions, and is very responsive. Several third-party apps add more fun and functionality to the Philips Hue kit, but the basic app works just fine.

I very much enjoyed having more available task lighting that I could place exactly where I needed it. I also really love the look of using it underneath a piece of furniture to create less harsh lighting in the room, and more of a soft ambient glow.

Try ambient lighting in your media room

I’ve done some reading which suggests ambient light around or behind your TV can help combat eye strain. I decided to try to add the Philips Hue Lightstrip plus to the edge of my 50″media room TV. Though the set up was only temporary and didn’t look very attractive, it’s easy to get the idea of how this would look in a permanent installation.

I played with several different settings of colour and brightness during a movie. The subtle back late was a nice change of pace from the normal stark blackness of my media room.img_5988

While there are special apps that claim to be able to adjust the colour of your lights to the program or movie you are watching, the Phillips Hue app itself does not do this. So while you can adjust the general ambient colour or brightness, you can’t customize the experience; not without paying for an extra app. This is something I’d like to try down the road, but for this review, that’s kind of secondary.

Bottom line; this light strip works well, has good strong colour saturation, is very versatile, and if you rig up temporary adhesive (like a 3M command strip) you can move it as you need to.

Philips Hue Motion Sensor 

img_5896The addition of a motion sensor was a big deal for Philips. The small 2-inch square motion detector is light and compact with an adhesive back. If you don’t want to install it permanently, you can tuck it nearly anywhere, from a counter, dresser, even on top of a painting or frame; wherever you need it to detect motion. The motion sensor is powered by two AA batteries, meaning it’s completely wire-free, and with regular use those batteries should keep the sensor powered for  two to three years.

It won’t blind you at midnight

The motion sensor adds a lot more versatility and new functions to the Hue lighting lineup. More than just turning the lights on and off, this device gives you many new options. For example, using the Hue app you can set the lights to come on at different strengths or colours depending on the time of day or night;  you can set a night light function, so if someone in the house wakes up in the middle of the night, and goes to the bathroom, the Philips Hue lights will turn on, but only dimly to light the way.

Motion detected instantly

The sensors have a great range, and can see about 100° in all directions. Indeed, I have the sensor in my dining room, with a direct line to a hallway about 18 feet away, and when I walk past, it’s still able to see me.  The lights fade on in less than a second; there’s really no lag from detected motion to lights-up.  I was actually quite impressed with the responsiveness.

New version Philips Hue bulbsimg_5997

While the Philips Hue kit is very easy to set up and use, if I had to find fault with one aspect of it up to now, it’s been that the light bulbs aren’t super colourful and aren’t as richly saturated as some other bulbs I’ve tried. (Namely Lifx and Osram WeMo).

That’s all changed now with the re-issue of new bulbs from the company. They look identical but it’s the guts inside that now produce deeper richer colours. I did notice that they do appear noticeably stronger and more saturated, allowing you to use them to decorate with light for holidays like Christmas, Halloween and Easter, or to just enjoy relaxing or invigorating colour scenes at home.

Philips has also added some new bulbs to the Hue line; the GU10, popular in Canada (for halogen fixtures) and the BR30 spot light.

I have lights… why do I need SMART lights?

It’s a fair question; why upgrade to (often more expensive) smart lights when you can get illumination the old fashioned  way? To answer that question, I present, “5 COOL things you can do with Philips Hue lights.”

  1.  Get your lights to flash when the doorbell rings. You’ll need a video or connected doorbell for this one, and the free IFTTT app. (What’s IFTTT? Read my explainer here) Using IFTTT, you create an ‘applet’ (formerly called a recipe) that tells your lights to flash when your doorbell, like the Ring Video Doorbell is pushed. In simplest terms, you allow IFTTT access to your doorbell and your Hue hub, and the app gets them to talk to eachother, even though they don’t normally work together.
  2. Get lights to change colour according to the weather. This is a feature I love.  Use IFTTT again to get your local weather info to send alerts to your light bulbs.  Have them come on bright orange when it’s going to be a scorcher, or turn blue for a snow day. Click here for my how-to.
  3. Turn on lights inside when motion is detected outside. Another applet function from our friends at IFTTT; use a dedicated connected motion detector, or camera like the on on the Ring doorbell, and then have it communicate with your lights. When it detects motion at your door, day or night, that action triggers the lights to turn on to make it seem as though someone is awake or at home. The applet can be found here.
  4. Sync a light show to music. If you have a connected speaker like Sonos, you can get it talking to your Hue lights. Get it to create you a light show that complements your music.
  5. Use a Hue go lamp to wake you with warm light:  Not new, but also worth mentioning as part of the Philips Hue kit is the Hue Go lamp  which I’ve written about previously; it’s actually the light I use to subtly wake me up at my 3am alarm time. Using the Philips Hue app, I have it set to slowly fade on about 15 minutes before my alarm goes off, to a soft sunrise pink-orange. By the time my alarm rings, the room is bathed in soft light for a gentle wakeup.

What would you do in your home with new smart lights and accessories? Let me know in comments below. The new Hue motion sensors sell for $39.95 (CDN or USD). The Light strip is $89, and the starter kit of bulbs is $179-$199. Check out the whole line here.What

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