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How I Built a Smart “On-Air” Light for When I’m Recording or Meeting

As a guy who makes his living mostly from recording podcasts and videos, it can be frustrating when my family, who’s mostly stuck at home due to a pandemic, comes into my office while I’m recording, or decides to make the most noise right outside my door. I don’t blame them for this. You do what you can to keep 2 small children entertained. But I also wanted to solve the problem as much as I could.

In fact, I’m sure with many now working primarily from home, a silent but noticeable signal that you’re in a meeting would also go a long way. This is a project I’ve been thinking about for a long time, and last week I finally made a smart on-air light for when I’m recording or meeting.

The Requirements for a Smart On-Air Light

Back in February (this was still the “before time” for me), I tweeted:

I figured there had to be some smart, battery-powered light I could stick to my door as to not obstruct the kitchen in any way. Boy was I wrong. It’s not that any of the answers on Twitter were bad, but they all missed an incredibly important requirement. The light itself had to be “wireless” all-around. Perhaps I should have said battery-powered instead. Twitter is hard.

My original requirements were:

  1. Smart – as in it connects to wifi. Ideally to HomeKit (Apple’s smart home solution).
  2. Colored – I wanted a red light when I recording. White or off when not
  3. Battery powered – I didn’t want to run any wires because the door to my office is in the kitchen.
  4. Sticky – as in I could stick it to my door.

After searching far and wide for something that filled these requirements and was in stock, I realized I was asking for a tall ordered. So I came up with a new idea.

Using a Smart Plug

There’s an outlet behind my refrigerator, which is next to my office door. I could plug in a smart plug and a lamp, and place it near my office door.

The only problem was the fridge is tall and there’s not a ton of space between it and the door. We couldn’t, for example, put a table there. And while we could put it somewhere else, I really wanted it as close to my door as possible so no one would miss it.

So that was out. Then I came up with another idea.

Nix the Smart Plug, get a Sconce

It turns out that you can buy a wall sconce that plugs into an outlet. This is ideal for me as I didn’t want to run electrical wires. I’m not even remotely qualified to do that and hiring a professional to do that in our starter home felt a little over the top.

But one that plugs in – that’s perfect! The outlet is high up on the wall behind the fridge, and most of the wire is behind the fridge. I find a nice sconce, and it’s a decorative light most of the time, and a recording light for a few hours a week.

After doing some searching on Amazon, and running a few by my wife, we settled on this sconce Novogratz. It’s nice looking, unobtrusive, and it comes with a plug and hardwiring. Options! You can even shorten the plug wire, which is neat.

Making the Sconce Smart

With the lighting fixture in place, the actual light became obvious: a Philips Hue White and Color smart light. We already have the hub for HomeKit as I have several bulbs and strip lights throughout the house. The end result is nice:

a smart lightbulb on a sconce, next to a picture.
Good vibes!

Triggering the Light

Once the light was up, my family and I agreed on a 2-color system:

  1. Red is recording.
  2. Green is come on down.

I also have the light turn blue when I turn on the rest of my office, but since it’s connected to HomeKit, my family can use the HomePod to change the color (as long as it’s not red!).

So I created a few ways to trigger the light:

  1. A button on my Stream Deck. Since Philips Hue also connects to Stream Deck, I was able to easily set up a button that toggles between red and white.
  2. Siri Shortcuts. I also have two shortcuts. When I said “Hey Siri, I’m recording,” the light turns red. When I say, “Hey Siri, Teresa can come down,” the light turns green.

Here’s the voice command in action:

So far, this has worked well. But, as always, there are some improvements I’d like to make.

Improvements to the On-Air Light

First, there was an issue on the Stream Deck where the light didn’t turn off from red. I think I misconfigured the button and it’s worked since, but a notification that the light has changed is something I’d like to add.

Second, this set up requires me to remember I’m recording. What I’d really like to do is have it turn on automatically based on some number of triggers. I’m working through this, but my first thoughts are:

  1. Look at my calendar for meetings and turn it on 5 minutes before one starts.
  2. Have Keyboard Maestro turn it on when Zoom, GarageBand, ScreenFlow, or eCamm Live start (or even better, start recording).

The second option is the most foolproof, provided those triggers are available. If in any event, I don’t need that light on, I can use the button on my Stream Deck to turn it off.

Wrapping Up!

I know there are a lot of ways to accomplish this (and some are much easier than my solution). But I wanted something simple as far as installation goes, and as automated as possible so that I (or some robot) actually remember to use it.

What do you think? Have you implemented something like this? Let me know in the comments!

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