Syfy Plays With The Lights: Syncs Internet Of Things To TV Experience

I sure as hell hope the Syfy channel never gets hold of my connected thermostat. As one might expect from the home of "12 Monkeys," "Sharknado" and "Battlestar Galactica," these guys truly are geeking out on the ways in which mobile and home tech can enhance on-air programming. In both "Sharknado 2" and the current "12 Monkeys" series, Syfy uses their Syfy Sync mobile app to control a viewer’s Philips Hue connected home lighting system. The app uses audio detection to stay in sync with live and time-shifted viewings, usually to deliver content extras. But in these cases, the app uses Philips’ APIs to connect to the Hue LED lighting network.  

“We are making ‘light tracks,” says Matthew Chiavelli, head of digital media and strategy. “It is scoring the movie with light.” The Hue LEDs are capable of color and intensity changes, so the light track can follow a range of colors and moods to enhance the impact of on-screen action.



The trick, the team soon learned, is to enhance the scene without distracting the viewer and pulling them from the action. In "Sharknado 2" the effects started simple: lights turning red when there were especially grisly kills.

At the same time the Syfy crew were testing the effect on focus groups to see what was working. “We learned that we couldn’t do too much,” Chiavelli says. They learned to do things like sending rapid successions of commands to the lights to dramatize tensions, imitate lightning and other effects.

Interestingly, they learned that viewers want to know the track is there and working, so the light scoring needs to front load a number of effects early in the narrative. And it is important to note that this light track is not algorithmically generated. Like a musical score, it needs to be scripted manually. And there are technical challenges. The system relies on the audio detection in a mobile app that is in turn connected to a home network and the Hue lights. You have to script for variable performance at that last 30 feet to and from the router and anticipate lag.  

While "Sharknado" was a one-shot movie where it was hard to overdo effects, Syfy is taking a less bombastic approach to "12 Monkeys." “It was something we were cautious of,” Chiavelli says. “We wanted to be reverential to the show. It is more serious and somber. We wanted to make sure we weren’t pulling people out of their experience.”

But clearly it is working for that select slice of Syfy viewers who use the Sync app and also own Hue lights.

What am I saying? This is Syfy. Who but Syfy viewers would be more likely to use second-screen TV enhancements and also be early adopters of app-controlled Led home lighting? In fact, in the first use of the technology, about 15% of all those who used Syfy Sync during "Sharknado" were connecting to Hue. But in the first episodes of "12 Monkeys," the share shot up to a third of second screeners.

“As we were monitoring Twitter the night of airings, people were tweeting pictures of their TVs,” he says. “People really wanted more.”

The idea of extending and enhancing an on-screen experience with ambient effects is hardly new of course. Smell-O-Vision was a 1960 experiment that Michael Todd deployed in “Scent of Mystery.” It shot into theaters aromas synched with scenes. I experienced the “Sensurround” effect used in the several mid-70s blockbusters, starting with “Earthquake.” It shot 120-decibel sound waves into the theater floor.

Imagine what home entertainment could do in a fully connected household. The mind reels at how a horror film might manipulate house locks, alarms and garage door opener. Oh, and couples porn. Who can overlook the possibilities for mood manipulation here?   

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