The home automation platforms on display at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas use a lot of different wireless technologies -- Wi-Fi, ZigBee, Z-Wave, and an array of vendor-specific networks come to mind. All of them have their advantages and disadvantages, but all share the common need for a central networking hub, at a cost of some $50 or so, to connect disparate “smart” household devices into a common platform for your smartphone, tablet, or PC to control.
But what if your smartphone could also be the hub of your home network? That’s the idea behind using Bluetooth, the ubiquitous phone-to-earpiece wireless standard, as a home automation standard.
Bluetooth Low Energy, a variant that competes with ZigBee and Z-Wave for connecting devices that need to conserve battery life, is emerging as a serious contender for home networking, with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems now supporting it, and some early applications, such as Apple’s iBeacon indoor positioning system, are starting to emerge.
Enter Zuli, a San Francisco-based startup that’s turning to Bluetooth LE for home energy awareness. Last week, the bootstrapped startup concluded a Kickstarter campaign that raised $175,000 and enlisted 925 backers to start testing its Bluetooth LE-networked, energy-sensing smart plugs in their apartments and homes.
For $50 per smart plug, customers can gain the ability to turn wall-socket-powered lights, appliances and home electronics on and off on command or according to set schedules, control dimmable lights, and monitor energy use via the onboard metering inside each plug, all via their smartphone, CEO Taylor Umphreys told me in an interview last week.
Each smart plug uses chips from Nordic Semiconductor and carries enough memory to store its energy consumption data for times when the smartphone isn’t around to collect it, he said. Once it’s uploaded, it can be pushed to Zuli’s cloud-based platform for analysis and presentment on a web interface.
To be sure, there’s not a lot of whole-home energy insight to be gained from a couple of smart plugs. But Umphreys told me that’s just the beginning of Zuli’s plans for integrating home energy data into its mix of services.
“The advantage of our devices is that they can be upgraded, the app can be upgraded, all over the air, from firmware, via Wi-Fi from your phone,” he said. “We’re going to continuously come out with new features, new benefits, from the app,” including plans to start incorporating whole-home energy data from utility Green Button programs, for example -- and, of course, to include new Bluetooth LE-equipped home gadgets as they come on the market.
Right now, networking for the home automation market is led by Z-Wave, which is the wireless tech of choice for companies including Vivint, Verizon, AT&T Digital Life, Lowe’s Iris platform, ADT Pulse and others. But it’s not really a standard, since it’s supported by only one chipmaker, Sigma Designs, presenting limits to development and adoption in the marketplace.
ZigBee has a smaller but growing contingent of users, such as Philips Hue LED light bulbs, Nest thermostats and Comcast’s Xfinity home automation service. It’s also the technology of choice for most of North America’s smart meters to communicate to home area networks, making it an important standard for home energy management vendors.
“But the fundamental problem is, those technologies don't exist in your smartphone,” Umphreys said. Both require that central hub, which adds cost to any deployment, as well as requiring a broadband internet connection to connect that home to the cloud services, web interfaces, and of course, the customer’s smartphone.
What’s more, the presence of a central hub limits the ability to determine a person’s location via her smartphone, he said. With Bluetooth LE, in contrast, “Because we have that direct communication from the phone to the devices, we can build out our unique algorithm to determine your location in the house.”
That, in turn, allows Zuli users to do things like set their smart plugs to turn on when they enter a room and turn off when they leave it. While plenty of other home automation platforms are touting the ability to sense a customer's location via smartphone to do things like turn on house lights and heating/air conditioning as they’re driving home from work, those technologies are not geographically precise enough to perform the same trick from room to room.
Bluetooth LE has one key problem compared to ZigBee and Z-Wave, however: it isn’t a mesh technology, meaning that it doesn’t use each device as a repeater to propagate signals around the home. That could limit its effective range and reliability, and while the recently approved Bluetooth 4.1 does provide for giving some mesh-like capabilities to individual low-powered devices, it hasn’t made its way into devices yet.
To get around that, Zuli created its own version of a Bluetooth LE mesh network, Umphreys said. “We’ve built out a unique way for Bluetooth technologies to mesh together and to extend the range in your home,” he said. That could boost the standard 30-meter range for a Bluetooth connection via each supporting device, and also help get around interference from thick walls, metal appliances and other wireless-blocking materials inside homes.
Whether or not Zuli’s flavor of mesh picks up traction with other Bluetooth LE players is another question, of course. “We’re looking at all possibilities for opening up our technology, making it available to all Bluetooth devices, not just the ones we’re using,” he said, and is in discussions with the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which manages development and licensing of Bluetooth technologies. At the same time, it’s keeping abreast of developments like Bluetooth 4.1, the recently released version that includes some mesh-like capabilities, he said.
As for how Zuli plans to turn its technology into a business, “We’re exploring a lot of potential different routes right now. Our initial goal is to build a great product, make it affordable and simple, and not lock you into these high subscription fees that others are trying to make you buy,” he said -- a not-so-indirect jab at the subscription services that have so far made up the majority of today’s smart home services.
“As we continue to improve the technology and improve the features for the app, there are possible revenue models we can bring in,” he said. Zuli is in the process of raising a venture round from Menlo Ventures and XG Ventures, he added, though he declined to say how much it’s targeting. The startup is also planning a beta test of its system this spring, asking hundreds of its Kickstarter participants to take part, and hopes to start selling on a commercial basis later this year.