I’ve been following the development of a voice activated computer device called Ubi since it made it’s kickstarter plea on August 13, 2012. Ubi’ promises to be “Always-on, always ready, voice-activated. Ubi is an ubiquitous computer. Just plug it in, talk to it and it’ll help you connect to your world.”
What Ubi actually is (or says it will be) is an aftermarket product which would allow consumers to place independently computerized, internet connected sensors in various locations throughout their homes. Ubi nodes can work independently or can be interconnected into an array and would allow the consumer to monitor, and record, various ambient data from each location, such as temperature, humidity, light levels, sound levels, etc. The Ubi device brings voice command over simple tasks like placing a call or Siri-like data inquiries (i.e., “what’s my schedule today?” and “How many teaspoons in a gallon?”). This voice command feature would also allow consumers to control a variety of connected home automation devices such as lights, thermostats and security systems. None of the current home automation providers offer a truly interactive voice command experience. For the moment, voice interaction is a major differentiation.
Ubi will be open to the developer community as a platform for custom application development. The Ubi platform also promises to allow for phone OS and home automation device integration (i.e. the Nest thermostat, Schlage Locks, etc.). What is not yet clear is how well this Ubi platform will work with the increasing range of home automation products and services. I recently worked with Lowe’s to develop and launch their new line of home automation products and service offerings called IRIS. The strength of the IRIS platform is in it’s ability to tie all the automated products into a central control source with browser accessibility and plug-and-play simplicity. At present there is no dominant standard for home automation platforms. The first to achieve an acceptable end-to-end consumer service offering which covers the largest array of connected devices will likely set the tone for the industry as a whole. At present it’s still an open game but the clock is ticking.
Ubi is intriguing because it would allow consumers to upgrade existing homes with voice command capability in an ad-hoc fashion. The pricepoint for Ubi is a little high for the average consumer at the moment but it is well within the long-tail adopting technophile’s reach. The changes made during this long-tail phase will likely result in a much more consumer friendly price and user experience for future offerings. By version three I would expect this technology to be well baked enough to pass the “mom” test for plug-and play install and over-the-phone tech support.
I’m excited to see things like Ubi appear in consumer space. The disruption this platform is likely to introduce will drive innovation quickly across the entire industry. What remains to be seen is if they’ll be able to pull it all together as promised. The field is packed with industry giants vying for dominance in the home automation space. Technology leaders like HTC, LG, Samsung and Apple are all driving hard to become the owner of the home automation standard. Big box retailers (Lowe’s, and soon to be Home Depot), communication providers (Cox, AT&T, Comcast, etc.) and a geometrically increasing list of other automation and security providers are also rushing the field. No one has fully connected the experience of home automation yet but they are all within sight of the finish line. Home automation is shaping up to be the next “big thing” and no one wants to be late to that party.
An ancillary benefit of these types of technologies comes in the form of accessibility. Consider the impact voice activated command and control would have on mobility challenged consumers, or sight impaired consumers. Voice activated devices would empower consumers with accessibility needs to control a vast array of things without the need of specialized interfaces. Personally I would just like to be able to voice command the TV or stereo from around the house without hunting down a remote or launching some random phone app. It’d also be nice to have a phone call track me from room to room as I meander about doing chores without having to carry the actual phone in my hand in speaker mode. Yes, I know Bluetooth can already handle hands-free phone interactions to some extent but it doesn’t seem to handle corners very well, and stairs even less so. Actual source tracking across a room-to-room network opens up a lot of truly interesting interaction opportunities, and just think how fun that would be at parties.
Ubi is exciting and promises to be enormously disruptive towards how we’ll consider interactive design for our homes in the future. Unfortunately Ubi, and pretty much every home automation tool, is still a long way from giving us the in-home Hal 9000 experience. Though that may not be such a bad thing considering how that story turned out in the end.