The plan is to offer an inexpensive home automation system that’s supported by ads driven into the user’s homes.
That’s Ube, a start-up spearheaded by Utz Baldwin, a former home systems integrator and the past CEO of the Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association (CEDIA).
In an interview Baldwin calls the technology disruptive, but it’s really the business model that is disruptive: Build a critical mass of subscribers to a cloud-based home automation service and then make money by selling a rich database that includes every household member’s choice of TV stations, temperature settings, comings and goings, etc.
The goal is to attract 4 million subscribers in the first four or five years by giving away the home automation software and selling richer SaaS-based capabilities for a nominal $20 per year.
To ramp up this quickly, installation must be simple for the do-it-yourselfer, which means no central control system for the Ube solution – the likes of which are found in traditional home controllers that employ low-cost, low-rate wireless technologies such as ZigBee and Z-Wave.
Instead, Ube is going all-IP for machine-to-machine (M2M) home control via iOS, Android and other smart devices—an approach employed by few home automation vendors today, with the notable exception of Belkin and its very limited WeMo.
Unfortunately, you just can’t find light switches and AC outlets today with built-in WiFi, so Ube is building its own that are easily configured. Each has a 32-bit processor that is “as powerful as most central home controllers,” Baldwin says.
“We have a simple method for provisioning the devices,” Baldwin says. “It’s as easy as sending a text message. You just have to answer two questions – what room is it in, and what do you want to call it?”
M2M-based home control that exploit “the Internet of things” have been limited in the past due mostly to the relatively high cost of IP-based technologies compared to lower-cost (and lower-power) home automation-centric technologies like Z-Wave and ZigBee.
Ube’s WiFi-enabled switches, though, will cost about as much as the lowest-price versions of their Z-enabled counterparts, or around $60. The company’s first hardware products are geared towards lighting and energy management, with an AC outlet, dimmer and plug-in module.
“Most smart home dimmers today cost $140 to $200 and still require some other device,” Baldwin says. “Ours requires no additional hardware.”
Of course, that means the Ube system can only control devices out of the gate that are IP-enabled, like smart TVs and thermostats. Baldwin says protocol bridges are likely to be launched in the future.
Ube says it will be able to control around 200 different IP-enabled devices on the market when it launches this year.
Big Brother Meets Home Automation
Targeted advertising then can be pushed to the user. Of course, since each user has their own smart device, the data can drill down to each unique user in a household via “‘submetering’ and intelligence on the back end,” Baldwin explains.
The system “can see any IP-enabled device and how you interact with it,” he says. “Every button press from every user is captured.”
In addition to having value for advertisers, the data also is useful for the users themselves, Baldwin says: “Over time, it can suggest actions based on their patterns. The system learns how you use it over time.”
In an era of paranoia about identity theft and security breaches, Baldwin acknowledges that this approach to home automation might freak out a user or two, but it really isn’t much different from the targeted ads on Facebook and elsewhere, he suggests.
The system might know, for example, that it’s time to change a filter or clean a drip pan and deliver ads for related subcontractors.
When it comes to data aggregation, it “comes down to eyeballs,” Baldwin says. “We believe we can reach somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million downloads in around four or five years.”
That requires a heck of a lot of do-it-yourselfers who are comfortable installing light switches and thermostats.
Baldwin says Ube closed its initial seed funding and plans to raise more via Kickstarter – less for the money than for the visibility and valuable feedback, Baldwin says.
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Julie Jacobson is co-founder of EH Publishing and currently spends most of her time writing for CE Pro, mostly in the areas of home automation, networked A/V and the business of home systems integration. She majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin, and has never taken a journalism class in her life. Julie is a washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player with the scars to prove it. Follow her on Twitter @juliejacobson.