Ubi talks IoT

Near ubiquitous broadband, cloud technologies and processor miniaturization, which has enabled the distribution of intelligence across multiple sensors and devices, have combined to ignite a firestorm of opportunity in the connected home marketplace. Parks Associates, a market research firm focused on emerging consumer technologies, has found that the average US household currently has 6.7 connected consumer electronics devices,[1] and that 43% of US broadband households are now willing to purchase a smart home package that would leverage IoT for safety, security, or home management applications.[2] According to ABI Research, by 2017 more than 8 million home automation systems will ship in the US, generating a CAGR of 45.2% from 2011 to 2017,[3] while on a global basis, Harbour Research expects the number of connected home/consumer devices shipped in 2020 will rise to 3,745.71 billion, out 8 billion estimated for IoT as a whole (excluding cellphones).[4] In terms of revenue, Harbour Research has calculated a $397.8 billion opportunity for connected home by 2020, and a recent Juniper Research report predicts the smart home services market — including home entertainment products and services — will reach $71 billion by 2018, up from $33 billion in 2013, and $25 billion in 2012.[5] On a micro level, the pace of this emerging opportunity is equally dramatic: Tom Kerber, director of research for home controls & energy at Parks Associates, has pointed to phenomenal growth for many individual connected home market players — 100 percent annual growth for companies such as Google’s Nest Labs and for Icontrol Networks, and 50 percent for Alarm.com, which now has roughly two million customers in the smart home space.

Broad spectrum growth across the connected home market has its corollary: no single application is driving market growth, rather multiple use cases are being defined for a number of smart home categories, including safety and security, environmental control and conservation, household convenience, healthcare monitoring and devices to support assisted living, entertainment, and smart appliances, virtually all of which are capable of remote management through mobile/cloud solutions. At the same time, the multiplicity of solutions and vendors engaged in the connected home market has resulted in a significant challenge for the unified operation of connected home systems — interoperability issues rising from the use of different software standards and communications protocols in various devices. This heterogeneity has introduced complexity for the user, which in turn has implications for delivery on the true promise of connected home — the deployment of technology to simplify, not complicate, household management.

Leor Grebler, cofounder and CEO, Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation
Leor Grebler, cofounder and CEO, Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation

In this current kettle of connected devices, vendors, standards and systems, solutions that can unify and simplify the user experience are gaining traction. While market consolidation to create end-to-end solutions is one approach to unification (ex. Google acquisition of Nest Labs, its move into home security and development platforms), efforts to develop interoperability standards for device communications is another, and a third path is technology innovation aimed at providing an easy-to-use platform or hub for user management of multiple devices. A twist on this can be found in the Ubi, a voice-activated home controller that was inspired by a desire to simplify the human to computer interface. As Leor Grebler, CEO and cofounder of Canadian-based, Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation (maker of the Ubi), explained, “There are a lot of people who want to be the best connector for all of these home automation devices that are coming online. So you end up with a lot of different services that will act as hubs to connect devices and get them online — SmartThings, Staples’ Connect, Resolv or The Home Depot’s Wink, for example. Our goal is to be the platform for interaction with the Internet of Things, and that is to interact through voice and natural language services. There are already a lot of hubs on the market — we want to be the voice layer for all these devices and hubs that are coming onto the market.”

Creators of The Ubiquitous Computer (Ubi) have taken advantage of IoT enabling and other technologies to develop this unique voice-based interface. Comprised of a cloud-based platform for natural language processing, device integration, access to partner services, set up, management and billing, the Ubi system features a WiFi-enabled device that plugs into a wall socket, receives voice commands and returns a simple voice reply. The result is hands free web research, Google search, text and email messaging, home monitoring and control of lights, thermostats and security systems.

Ubi board
Ubi board

Grebler has described the Ubi as consisting of two components: a board designed in Richmond Hill, Ontario, that has a microphone, speakers, LED lights and sensors for light, humidity and air pressure; and a “small Android computer.” This processor continuously listens for the “okay Ubi” wake up call, registers a voice command that is then sent to an online Google speech recognition service which returns a text-based result to Ubi’s cloud-based natural language platform for interpretation: “we try to determine what the user’s intent is,” Grebler explained. “Is the user looking for information, does the user want to control a device, does the user want to send an email, or play music?” The Ubi platform then fetches the required information or service (text-based responses and access to services are provided by an Ubi content partner) and pushes this back to the user in voice format. Grebler’s claim that ‘this all happens in two or three seconds” was born out in a short demo — the platform even providing the wry response ‘I’m truly fond of you’ to the question ‘Ubi, do you love me?’

A key goal for Ubi developers has been to build a platform that makes it dead simple for people to interact with computers. “Our mandate is to free people from having to work with very defined interfaces,” Grebler explained. With the beta Ubi, set up of custom device interactions or email configuration may pose some challenges for the user who is less tech savvy; however, the company continues to work on ease of use, and Grebler noted that you don’t have to be a developer to use the pull down menu. After initial set up and WiFi enablement, the voice based interface, which requires no training, is likely the easiest interface to use — and one that is hands free to boot.

Ubi device
Ubi device

The Ubi service includes the Ubi Portal, which manages administrative issues such as billing, but also set up through customized interactions designed for onboarding different smart home devices and platforms — integration with a Nest thermostat, for example, or the SmartThings hub, Ubi’s first major integration partner.  While Ubi creators considered installing different radio frequency chips onto the Ubi device itself to enable connection with other devices, as Grebler explained, “we realized that we were opening a big can of worms as every device has its own protocols, its own RF and its own software, so it would be a nightmare integrating with them all. So we took a step back and asked ‘what is the easiest way to connect with these devices?’” Ubi’s answer was open APIs and communication via the HTTP Internet protocol.

Currently, the Ubi has a range of approximately two metres before degradation of the voice signal, and while the company is working to expand this, remote control is actually independent of device range because the system is Internet-based. “You can have Ubis in many places around the world that talk to each other,” Grebler noted. “There’s no limit” — a possibility that Grebler, and cofounders Blake Witkin, Amin Abdossalami and Mahyar Fotoohi hope will be realized when the device moves out of beta into public launch this coming fall, with sales driven by the IoT revolution and the explosion of interest in voice and natural language services.


[2] http://www.parksassociates.com/blog/article/western-european-consumers-highly-value-smart-safety-security-devices

[3]  ABI Research. 1.5 Million Home Automation Systems Installed in the US This Year, November 2012. https://www.abiresearch.com/press/15-million-home-automation-systems-installed-in-th


[4] Postscapes and Harbor Research Infographic. http://postscapes.com/what-exactly-is-the-internet-of-things-infographic

[5] Juniper Research. Smart Home Ecosystems & the Internet of Things. http://www.juniperresearch.com/viewpressrelease.php?pr=429


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