We’re seeing a lot of activity in the smart-home field these days. Players like Google and Apple are vying with broadband providers, security firms, home improvement stores, and of course, the home energy management crowd, to find the right combination of technology and service to get people to open their wallets for home connectivity.
“Presence” -- the ability to accurately track individuals as they move from room to room, and to adjust home automation accordingly -- could be one of those hard-to-define experiences that make smart home technology truly compelling to people. At least that’s what startup Zuli and home automation vendor Logitech are hoping.
On Wednesday, Logitech launched its latest home automation system, the Harmony Living Home, which adds a whole bunch of new smart home devices and systems through a single gateway and remote control device. Among those partners is Zuli, a startup that’s developed its own Bluetooth low energy mesh to make smartphones into control platforms for “smart plug” adapters used to manage energy use in the home.
Zuli has several hundred Kickstarter backers and other beta testers using its technology in their homes today, and plans to move to full commercial sales early next year. But Logitech, which joined other investors in a $1.7 million seed investment in Zuli earlier this summer, sees a lot more use for Zuli’s underlying technology than just turning down desk lamps and other plugged-in appliances,
The bigger opportunity lies in using Zuli’s specialty-designed wireless mesh and data analytics to turn people’s smartphones into super-accurate sensors for room-to-room home automation controls, Taylor Umphreys, the startup’s CEO, said in an interview this week.
“We’ve broken out our presence technology into a web-enabled API that we can now integrate with external smart-home devices that leverage Wi-Fi, and use that to connect into the Logitech ecosystem, which is connected to tens and hundreds of thousands of devices in the home,” said Umphreys. “We can leverage that presence technology to do a bunch of cool things.”
Using Logitech’s Bluetooth LE-enabled hub, and the combination of the Zuli and Harmony control platforms, “you can set up triggers to automatically do what you want to do when you enter or leave a room,” he said. Imagine having lights switch on and off as you move from room to room, or your home entertainment system follow you through the house with music -- all without taking your cell phone from your pocket.
It’s a simple concept that ends up being quite complicated in execution, requiring the fast and accurate location of a person in relation to multiple sensors scattered throughout the home. A number of contenders are working on using Bluetooth low energy, combined with Apple’s iBeacon indoor positioning system, to deliver this kind of presence, Umphreys noted.
But iBeacons are “really limited in their accuracy,” he said, with simple distance-from-sensor settings that make it hard to tell whether someone is in the room, or just in the hallway outside the room, for example. Zuli has come up with its own wireless mesh version of Bluetooth LE, which allows multiple devices to communicate with each other, as well as providing directional data, in order to improve that accuracy, he said.
Zuli has also put a lot of effort into reducing the amount of time it takes its algorithms to collect and process the locational data they need to tell the home automation system what to do, he added. That’s really important for things like automating lighting, where people expect the lights to come on the instant they want them to, not several seconds later.
“When you expect something to happen, it’s amazing what a little time difference will do,” he said.
All of these capabilities rely on having at least one of Zuli’s Bluetooth LE smart plugs in each room in order to make the Logitech system aware of the presence of the triggering smartphone in question. But once that sensor is there, it can inform a whole range of controls linked up through the Logitech system, which is now open to devices from August, Honeywell, Kwikset, Lutron, PEQ, Schlage, SmartThings, Sylvania and Yale, along with the Philips Hue Wi-Fi-connected light bulbs and Google’s Nest smart thermostats.
More sensors and devices can expand the functionality one expects out of them. Smart thermostat vendor ecobee launched a new multi-sensor package earlier this week, which provides temperature and occupancy data for multiple rooms, for example. Mixing and matching devices from different vendors does bring up questions of interoperability, of course -- Zuli is able to work with Logitech because its hub includes Bluetooth LE, Umphreys noted.
As with so many of the home automation advances we’ve been covering, energy conservation ends up being a fairly low priority compared to comfort, security and indulging the modern taste for entertainment at the touch of a button -- or the presence of a smartphone. But as homes become more automated, energy management can benefit from the services consumers are most willing to pay for.