Here are two ideas for making home automation a lot cheaper and simpler than it is today. First, replace the ubiquitous wireless hub device, the most expensive part of any automation package, with your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. Second, replace the light switch, with its old-fashioned wired connection, with a battery-powered version that you can stick anywhere you want.
Startup Avi-on Labs is hoping these two prospects will stick with customers. This week, the startup started taking preorders for its Bluetooth-connected wireless wall switch, which runs on batteries and can be managed from your smartphone via iOS and Android apps. Like many other entrants to the DIY home automation market, Avi-on is crowdfunding its product line, looking for customers willing to preorder its devices at $30 apiece to bootstrap production some time early next year.
Because the switches use Bluetooth low energy (LE), they can be operated from most of today’s smartphones without a wireless hub or bridge. These devices are expensive, and they can also be complicated to set up, Dana Kunz, Avi-on co-founder and general manager, said in an interview last week.
Using Bluetooth LE also allows for battery-powered devices that won’t be drained of energy by the demands of Wi-Fi or other more energy-intensive networks, Kunz noted. Avi-on’s wireless light switch, which can be stuck to any surface with an adhesive strip or screwed onto a typical light switch plate, comes with a battery that can last years without being replaced, she said.
These are some of the significant benefits that have drawn other startups to try Bluetooth LE for the home. At the same time, a single light switch doesn’t make a smart home -- especially without a light that can pick up its wireless commands. To expand its reach, Avi-on has convinced a few big-name partners to join its cause.
The first is Jasco Products, maker of General Electric-branded household devices, which has a line of Bluetooth-enabled light switches, LED light bulbs, and indoor and outdoor smart plugs, available for preorder along with Avi-on’s system. Each item will retail at less than $40, compared to $60 or so for other wireless light systems on the market, Kunz noted.
The second big partner is CSR (Cambridge Silicon Radio), a market leader in Bluetooth chipsets that was bought by Qualcomm for $2.5 billion earlier this month. CSR is a big player in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which helps set standards for the technology. It’s also the maker of CSRMesh, a version of Bluetooth LE that allows each device in the network to serve as a repeater to propagate signals throughout the home.
Meshing is important for low-power wireless, effectively increasing range with each new device. Other startups getting into the Bluetooth LE game, such as Zuli, are building their own mesh technologies in hopes of having them adopted by others in the field. As for Avi-on, “We’re working with CSR and the Bluetooth standards board to bring a global, interoperable standard to market,” Kunz said.
Using a smartphone as a home hub has its advantages, but one big drawback: when the phone isn’t in the house, the entire system has no connection to the internet. To get around that limitation, and to allow people to manage their devices when they’re away from home, Avi-on plans to build its own Wi-Fi bridge device, Avi-on co-founder Eric Miller noted.
That will bring up the cost of the system, of course. But importantly, it’s not required for customers to start down the road of automating their home, he said. “This is a full ecosystem coming out -- all the pieces that people need to build a whole-home automation solution,” he said, but “the devices are all very low-cost [and] you can buy them one at a time.”
Home automation is certainly getting a lot of attention these days, whether from home security providers, telco and cable companies, or tech giants like Apple and Google. Bringing down costs and complexities could help drive adoption beyond the wealthy and tech-savvy customers that have been most interested in it so far.
Avi-on, like most of the home automation contenders today, isn’t focused on energy management as its chief selling point. Still, as technologies like these start to spread, they could offer useful touchpoints for utility efficiency or demand response programs, or third-party energy management services that connect lots of homes into significant blocks of controllable power.
At the very least, giving people more reasons to switch to LED bulbs will help drive more efficiency in lighting, Miller noted. Beyond that, “We’re already talking to thermostat platforms” that could connect with Avi-on’s Bluetooth networks, he said. “There are a lot of things we can do around whole-home monitoring, both for comfort and automation purposes and for energy efficiency.”