Indoor campfires, motion sensitivity, and 9 other smart-light tricks to try

They can do a lot more than turn on and off.

So you’ve installed smart lights in your home. Now what? Sure, you can switch the lights on and off with an app. But their abilities go way beyond that.

More advanced tricks will let you set up an indoor campfire experience, make the bulbs respond to motion, sync color with music, and more. We collected 11 hacks to put your new smart lights through their paces. Although this guide focuses on the most popular brands—Philips Hue and Lifx—many other app-connected lights can pull off similar feats.

1. Fire up a fire-free fireplace

With some subtle color changes and a flickering effect, your smart bulbs can simulate a dancing flame indoors—although they can’t fake the heat or the noise that you’d expect to accompany it. You don’t need to program this pattern yourself; simply download one of several apps.

We like OnSwitch (for Android and iOS), which works with both Philips Hue and Lifx bulbs. To build your fire, open the app and go to Albums > Fire > Fireplace. If you’d like to limit the effect to certain lights, you can change which bulbs get lit in the Scenes tab. OnSwitch offers many free effects, such as Candle Light, but to use Fireplace, you’ll have to buy it for $2.

2. Wake up to an artificial sunrise

Keep the shades down in the morning: Your smart lights can mimic the sunrise, gradually brightening to ease you out of your slumber. This ability works through the official apps for your smart bulbs.

In the Hue app (for Android and iOS), tap the Routines button (clock icon) followed by Wake up. Then adjust the settings—when you want to wake up, how long the fade should last, which bulbs should activate—by tapping the Plus icon.

In the Lifx app (for Android and iOS), your first step should be tapping on the light or group of lights you want to use. Next, adjust the final brightness and color you want your room to reach. Set the time and duration of the fade by tapping New Schedule. Finally, hit New Scene to name and save this wake up routine.

3. Flow with the music

Make your next party particularly memorable by having your smart lights change color and brightness in time to the music. This is another hack that’s dependent on a third-party app.

The free app Light DJ (for Android and iOS) creates a really good sync, although the timing isn’t perfect. Fire up the app, pick which lights to activate by tapping the bulb icon, and select Start. The app will “listen” to audio coming through the phone’s microphone and adjust the lights accordingly. You can adjust the effect too: To choose color combinations from a preset list, hit the Menu button (three dots) on the top right; to tweak the speed of the color and brightness cycles, use the Customize button (the sliders icon).

In the free version of Light DJ, the light show ends automatically after only five minutes. To extend the effect, you’ll need to pay a one-time upgrade fee of $10.

4. Sync lights and television

Beyond syncing your lights and music, you can also have the smart bulbs reflect what’s on your TV screen. For example, the lights might turn blue during a relaxing underwater scene. This trick works best with third-party apps for Philips Hue bulbs: At the moment, we can’t find a reliable app to do the same thing with Lifx lights.

Our pick is Hue Matcher (for Android only). Open the app, point your phone at the television screen, and it beams the necessary color information to selected smart bulbs. Tap the cog icon to select which lights will sync up and use the Brightness Adjustment slider to change the strength of the effect. Hue Matcher offers a 30-day free trial, but if you plan to keep using it after that, you need to pay $1.

If you don’t own an Android device, then the $4 app Hue Camera for Philips Hue (for iOS only) can serve as a decent alternative. It works in much the same way as Hue Matcher.

5. Make the lights turn off when you leave

Did you remember to turn off the lights? Doesn’t matter. You can set your smart lights to switch themselves off once your phone, and the human attached to it, have left your home. This one doesn’t even require an additional app.

In the Philips Hue app (for Android and iOS), tap the Routines button (clock icon) followed by Home & Away. Hit Leaving home and select all your lights, then go back and turn on the Location aware toggle switch. Finally, tap Save to confirm your choices and ensure the app correctly detects where your home is.

Although the Lifx app doesn’t have this kind of functionality yet, but you can turn to this applet on the free IFTTT (If This Then That) platform. Once you register for an IFTTT account, that applet will link your phone’s location with your Lifx bulbs. Just click your avatar on the top right of the page, choose New Applet, and set Location as the trigger and Lifx as the resulting action. For more details, check out the full post describing the applet.

6. Broadcast the weather

Speaking of IFTTT, it has a lot more applets for smart lights, allowing your bulbs to respond to a variety of triggers, such as smart-speaker commands. One of the cleverest tricks: Telling your lights to imitate the current weather conditions.

Once you’ve logged into your IFTTT account, click your avatar followed by New Applet. For the trigger, choose Weather Underground, then Current condition changes to, then Rain. For the action, select Philips Hue or Lifx make your lights turn a shade of blue to match the miserable weather. You can create another applet to make the lights turn yellow or orange when the sun shines.

7. See new email alerts

Another IFTTT hack is to have your lights blink when you receive an email. This lets you skip checking your phone.

Follow the same steps to create a new applet, but this time, choose Gmail as the trigger. If you pick Any new email in inbox, your lights will tell you each time a new message arrives. For the action, pick Philips Hue or Lifx and have the selected lights blink in response to the incoming email. You can also toy around with other triggers, such as incoming text messages, and other responses, such as a color change instead of a blink.

8. Set a mood

With regular bulbs, you can turn the lights on and off. Smart lights give you more granular control over brightness and color. And certain apps have figured out the perfect light settings to build specific moods. If you’d like to dip a toe in these waters, the official Philips Hue and Lifx apps offer scenes and moods, or you can turn to a dedicated app.

We’d like to highlight HueManic (for Android only), which offers both free and $3 moods, including “Meditation” and “Sea.” Just open the app, swipe to select your mood, and tap the Play button.

As for Lifx bulbs and non-Android phones, the aforementioned OnSwitch (for Android and iOS) has a lot more moods than just “Fireplace.”

9. Simulate a storm

We’ve already talked about getting your smart lights to match the weather conditions outside. But that’s just a color-changing trick. Other apps actually make your lights simulate a thunderstorm.

Take Thunderstorm for Hue (for Android only) or Thunderstorm for Lifx (for Android only). Both apps cost $3 and provide the soundtrack of a thunderstorm, which syncs with bright flashes from your smart lights to match every crash and bang.

And that’s not even the only storm-imitating app out there. If you own an iPhone, try the $3 app Hue Thunder (for iOS only). It’s more customizable than Thunderstorm, allowing you to tweak the brightness of the “lightning” and the frequency of the “thunder.”

10. Turn on at preset times

Making your lights turn on at specific times is simple but very useful. For example, it can tell the kids when they need to get up or scare off burglars by making the house seem inhabited when you’re on vacation. And you don’t need a third-party app to apply this hack.

In the Hue app (for Android and iOS), tap the Routines button (the clock icon) followed by Other routines. Then, the Plus button on the bottom right lets you create a new preset routine. You choose a specific time when certain lights should turn on or off, and then you can tweak the brightness and color as well.

In the Lifx app (for Android and iOS), you need to configure something the app calls a Schedule. On the opening screen, tap the Plus button on the top right, select New Schedule, and enter details like the schedule’s name, timing, brightness, and color.

11. Get light when you enter a room

To really feel like you’re living in the future, have your smart lights turn on automatically when you enter a room. By connecting your smart lights with a smart motion sensor, you can avoid fumbling for the switch at night. There are a few different ways to set this up, but all of them require a motion detector.

For Philips Hue systems, the official Hue Motion Sensor ($40 on Amazon) integrates easily with your existing smart-light setup. You can tell it to be active only at certain times, like at night. In addition, you can make sure it doesn’t exceed a set brightness level—you don’t want to be blinded during a night-time bathroom break.

If you have Lifx lights, we recommend that you try the BeSense Motion Detector ($30 on Amazon) routed through a Samsung SmartThings hub. This will work with your Lifx bulbs much like the Hue Motion Sensor does with Hue ones.