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Summary:

Forget Zigbee and Z-wave, here’s a startup that wants to make Bluetooth the mesh networking protocol of choice for the smart home. But can Bluetooth deliver a mesh?

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photo: Zuli

There are a lot of radios in today’s smart home — that’s one of the biggest challenges for consumers trying to navigate the space — but a startup called Zuli aims to toss ZigBee and Z-wave and rely on Bluetooth as the future mesh network for the smart home. The year-old startup is offering a Bluetooth smart outlet via Kickstarter, but Taylor Umphreys, Founder and CEO of Zuli, says the plan is to keep adding more and more Bluetooth-based products.

His reasoning is sound. Most people now carry a smartphone with a Bluetooth radio in it, so they can control the device directly from their phone without the pain of having to buy a hub. And with the latest upgrades to the Bluetooth standard that lets a Bluetooth device act as both a hub and an endpoint, using Bluetooth devices to form a mesh network is easier. That’s something my colleague Kevin Tofel and I discussed on a podcast a few weeks back.

Although Zuli isn’t taking advantage of this ability (it was approved after the products were developed), the company did come up with a different way to build a Bluetooth mesh. Umphreys said that Zuli is likely to incorporate the standard once it’s implemented.

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But Bluetooth isn’t just about eliminating hubs — it also can allow Zuli’s products to sense a person’s location in the home, which is going to be popping up in more products coming out this year thanks to the excitement around iBeacons in Apple’s latest phone. Outside of the phone, motion sensors in connected home devices, such as the Nest thermostat, could be another way for the smart home to know where you are. I’ve also heard of using microphones, Wi-Fi or even electricity usage to track your movements inside the home.

In Zuli’s case for presence detection you’ll need at least three smart plugs, which will listen for your phone, making it less than ideal for someone like me that doesn’t carry their phone on their person at all times. My daughter would be out of luck too, since at seven she doesn’t have a smartphone. However, I do wear a Fitbit (see disclosure) that uses Bluetooth LE pretty much all the time. Umphreys said that while today Zuli doesn’t use that to track me, it might in the future.

At retail next year, the smart plugs should cost around $50, about the price of the Belkin WeMo connected outlets that were launched in 2012. Those outlets use Wi-Fi, another common radio built into phones. Of course, before I invest in a few Zuli outlets I want to know that they will work with my other connected devices. While it’s cool that it might be able to turn on a lamp plugged into the Zuli smart outlet when I walk into the room, it would be even cooler if it talked to my wall switch to turn on the overhead lights. Umphreys is planning such integrations with other devices as well as more products that “speak” Bluetooth, but those will be farther off into the future.

And frankly, that’s the toughest part about covering this space. There’s a lot of cool technology arriving on the scene, but it’s fragmented, and every purchase feels like it has the possibility for vendor lock in. Using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi should help with this, so I welcome efforts like Zuli.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

  1. This is the dumbest thing since every Bluetooth device operates in the very congested 2.4Ghz spectrum space and it overlays with multiple 802.11 wireless protocols, microwave ovens and so much more. Also Bluetooth sure doesn’t go through walls or people very well for that matter so the signal gets blocked all the time.

    ZipBee is designed so you can operate between the 802.11 ch 11, 6, 1 and then you have the option of operating completely outside of the 802.11 space as well. Zigbee is a meshed network by design and the Zigbee devices have lower power models that are built to last 2 years by spec on the internal battery of the unit therefore not even requiring a power outlet to function.

    The power companies use ZigBee for all their SmartMeters for a reason it works.

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    1. Stacey:
      Great comment about vendor lock in. This is what we are fighting with the Z-Wave Standard and our certification of interoperability (product / vendor interchangeability) at the product or application level. As far a I know Z-Wave is the only home control technology “brand” that stands for product to product and application to application interoperability across various manufacturers. In fact, we just certified our 1000th product. I agree that it is nice to have direct connection with smart devices via Bluetooth or WiFi but to date neither of these technologies can deliver the home area coverage and power profile (battery life) that Z-Wave can so for now a hub is the best way to go. This should not been seen as a negative as most people desire to have an Internet connected home and this requires a hub so there is likely one present anyway. Z-Wave can be found in hubs in almost all home alarm panels that offer home control as well as in the new AT&T, Verizon, Lowes, Staples, Vera, Nexia, Somfy, SmartThings, Revolv, HomeSeer and several other products.
      Mark Walters, Chairman Z-Wave Alliance

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      1. Mihail Panayotov Friday, January 31, 2014

        What about BLE 4.1? Seems things are changing. Even most of the 6loWPAN stuff could be implemented above BLE 4.1. Yes, 2.4 Ghz and the Bluetooth medium is not best for HA, but the main plus is that BLE is already there in all decent smartphones and tablets from the last year. And the trend is to gain even more popularity with all the smart watches and other wearables that will come this year. So, Bluetooth as HA technology is not a bad idea at all. Not the perfect from technical point of view, but perfect from users point of view.

        BTW, Zwave is not the only HA standard that gives interoperability across various manufacturers. In Europe KNX is very popular HA standard which operates over TP and Wireless mediums and is adopted from all major equipment manufacturers.

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