On Air in the home office

Since the pandemic started, I’ve gone all in on working from home. I quit my job at a local software company for a fully remote role, and built[1] a wooden cabin in my garden to work from. Being at home and mostly accessible to my family is great, but sometimes I need a way to signal to them that I’m on a call and ideally shouldn’t be disturbed.

The most obvious analogy is the “ON AIR” light box seen at radio and TV studios, designed to stop people unwittingly disrupting a live broadcast. This kind of thing:

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante

Amazon is filled with cheap (and they look it) remote-controlled versions of this idea. There are some more interesting interpretations on Etsy, but I need something that works outside, so that narrows the field a lot. What I do have is a light fitting on the side of the cabin that takes a regular screw bulb, which opens it up to the smorgasbord that is the smart bulbs market.

When I last looked at the home automation scene a few years ago, I decided it was a bit of an enthusiast’s pursuit - i.e. requiring lots of time and money and still mostly turning out a bit crap. Today, though, there’s a lot you can do quite cheaply and easily.

After a bit of searching I wound up getting a LIFX Mini LED bulb - it’s not expensive, works with Apple HomeKit and crucially is compact enough to fit in the light housing on the outside of my cabin (most bulbs are a little to long).

Being a light that supports any colour and brightness combination, it’s useful to me in other ways too - it can be a security feature at night, and give me some nice soft lighting outside in the evening.

The LIFX bulb, lit up red when I’m busy

The bulb is in my Apple HomeKit setup, which is easily done by scanning a code (it supports Alexa and Google Home as well; most smart bulbs seem to). What I want is a simple toggle to pop it on and off, ideally from my phone’s home screen. Enter Shortcuts, Apple’s friendly framework for automating home devices.

I have a “Busy/Free” shortcut which toggles the light. It’s a bit less simple than it should be in practise because there’s no way to toggle a device, so it has to check the current status with if/else logic and act accordingly. The shortcut also fires a notification, just to give me some feedback that it worked in case I can’t see the light from where I’m sitting.

Setup in Home and Shortcuts

The logical next step down the automation rabbit hole would be to toggle the light automatically when a call starts or ends, which I could probably do via IFTTT and its integration with Zoom. I don’t really want or need that complexity though; sometimes a simple on/off switch is perfect.

Stray observations:

  • Shortcuts works on the Mac too, so I can pin this switch to the menu bar, which is a nice touch.
  • I’ll be interested to see how the new Focus modes feature develops, and whether home scenes could become a factor in there.
  • Actions gives you lots of extra things to do in Shortcuts (and it’s free).

  1. Okay, I didn’t build it. Some nice people came and built it for me. ↩︎