Ambient Devices was a media darling of the early home energy management tech scene, with its MIT pedigree and promise of capturing people’s “pre-attentive awareness” via glowing orbs, umbrella handles, scoreboards and other everyday objects of the modern age to get them to change their behavior -- like wasting energy.
Then came the home energy management flood, with dozens of startups and a handful of IT giants aiming millions of dollars of investment at the still-nascent market. Ambient, despite ongoing programs with big utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, Baltimore Gas & Electric and Commonwealth Edison, dropped off the radar for a bit.
After all, could a red-and-green glowing orb in the kitchen really match the full-graphics web displays, smart thermostats and all the other HAN bells and whistles of the competition?
Ambient CEO Pritesh Gandhi says yes, if it’s cheap enough, and connected enough. On the first point, the Cambridge, Mass.-based startup’s new Energy Orb and Energy Joule devices cost less than $100 apiece, he said in an interview last week -- an important price threshold for utility-to-home technology.
On the second point, Ambient has partnered with Ember, a leading maker of ZigBee chipsets, the companies announced this week. Ambient’s earlier deployments used 900-megahertz pager networks, but the Ember partnership will interface with smart-meter-to-home networks being deployed across the country, Gandhi said.
Ambient was spun out of MIT’s Media Lab in 2001 and has raised about $7 million in venture investment since then, Gandhi said. The company is now profitable on sales of its niche consumer devices, he added. Those include such gadgets as umbrellas with handles that glow blue to warn of foul weather forecasts, handheld sporting box score “ScoreCast” devices, and refrigerator-mounted weather display panels.
Ambient got into the home energy space in 2007, deploying its postmodern-esque, glowing energy-warning orb devices with Southern California Edison. But until recently, energy was a sideline for the startup, representing about 15 percent to 20 percent of revenues, Gandhi said.
But that’s changed with the launch of its Orb and Joule devices, meant for deployment by utilities either with or without smart meters. About 50 percent to 60 percent of the company’s focus is now on that market, he said.
As for Ambient’s trademark -- its glowing lights designed to catch the eye of consumers -- the company is banking on its simplicity to make up for its lack of specificity, he said.
“My four-year-old can tell the difference between a red orb and a green orb,” Gandhi said. Likewise, “He can tell the difference between icons on a screen. But he may not be able to discern a complicated pie chart, or a table with a bunch of numbers on it,” and neither may busy homeowners.
Ambient’s new Orb and Joule devices aren’t limited to changing colors to inform consumers, though. They also have screens, showing the total current cost of powering your home in big numbers, with energy consumption and current cost in real time displayed in smaller type below. The Orb and Joule can also receive messages from the utility, like emergency peak power warnings on the one hand, or utility efficiency rebate program offers on the other hand.
While two-way communication from device back to utility isn’t part of the company's plan today, Gandhi said the current devices could support it. Given the plethora of competitors that do offer two-way connectivity, that would seem like something the startup would want to turn on as early as possible.
At the same time, Ambient’s low price point and ease of use may make the firm's devices particularly well suited to serving hard-to-reach utility customers, such as older customers unfamiliar with web displays and dashboards, or customers who can’t afford a home PC and broadband connection, Gandhi said. Ambient is talking to two or three utilities in Canada’s Ontario province about how it could help play a role in filling out broader-based deployments.
Ambient is a partner with Trilliant, the smart meter networking startup that’s serving much of Ontario Province’s smart meter market, which could give it an entry point in the region. While some Ontario utilities are planning to connect to residential customers via broadband networks, that leaves a lot of customers without broadband who can’t be denied a way to adapt to the province’s time-of-use electricity rates.
Ambient hasn’t announced any utility customers for its ZigBee-enabled, glowing smart energy displays, so it’s hard to test those two propositions just yet. Gandhi said he expects at least two years before the market will take off -- a safe estimate, given the lack of progress in the overheated segment to date.
“Today, everything we’ve done has been subsidized or provided by the utilities at no or low cost,” he said. “Eventually, the market could enable us to sell directly to consumers.” We shall see how the HAN market develops for Ambient, as well as its would-be competitors -- but it will take some time to see any winners emerge.