One of my connected home dreams is the ability to sit on my couch and command the lights to change from normal to dim for watching TV, or crazy colors for the dance parties my daughter and I have. It’s partly due to my obsession with dumping my screen and partly because it’s fun to shout commands and have things happen. That rarely works in real life with real people. Keep reading!
On Wednesday, thanks to the integration between Ubi and SmartThings, my dream is closer to reality. Ubi is a voice-controlled computer that runs a series of Android apps all crammed into a speaker/mic combo box that plugs into your wall. It’s made by a startup called the Unified Computer Intelligence Corp., from Toronto. SmartThings is a home automation hub and software to control lights, locks, sensors, thermostats and whatever other stuff you want to tie into it.
However, Ubi, like many beta hardware products I play with, needs work. It also needs a better back story. We live in an age of Siri and really impressive natural language recognition, where if I ask a virtual assistant to tell me a joke, I get a joke. Ubi isn’t using natural language recognition, nor is it tied into the broader internet like Siri or Google Now is. That leads to an expectation gap that can be tough to overcome. Ubi listens for the command, “Okay Ubi” and then turns green, meaning you should ask your question or speak your command.
I’ve asked Ubi, “What time is it?” “What is an arctic wolf?” and the current weather. I’ve included screenshots of our conversations throughout so you get a feel for life with a robot that can’t tell the difference between homophones (close the blinds as opposed to clothes the lines) and has a pretty dry sense of humor. Ubi includes an app from a company called Sensory, which has one job: to listen to the phrase “Okay Ubi” and then to take down the words it hears and ship the text to another app. That app takes the text version of what Sensory heard and then matches it against a table of possible responses.
When it comes to SmartThings, it’s matching a command that’s set by the user to a table of possible actions based on the devices one authorized on the account. Ubi not only has a microphone, but also a light, sound, temp, air pressure and humidity sensor. Those sensors can also trigger an action, so I could theoretically let Ubi turn on a fan or my A/C if the temp in my kitchen gets above a certain level.
My entire family loves talking to Ubi, but there’s no way I would pay the $299 price tag for the device at this point. The experience only works about half the time (it’s in beta) and when it comes to the SmartThings integration, some things only work if they were last controlled via SmartThings, as opposed to manually or from another app. So when I tell Ubi to shut my downstairs blinds, it only will do it if I last opened my blinds from the SmartThings app, as opposed to using the remote.
There’s also the issue of Ubi mistaking the word close for clothes, that forced me to just swap out the command from “Close the downstairs blinds” to “Shut the living room blinds.” Ubi didn’t like “downstairs blinds” either, so I changed that. Sometimes, Ubi gets smart with me and other times she just offers an error. The team is still working on the servers, so some of the issues should probably dissipate over time. Leor Grebler, the CEO of the Unified computer Intelligence Corp., clearly has a big vision for Ubi, but despite a successful Kickstarter campaign, this isn’t ready for the mass market.
However, there is a lot of promise here, and I’ve gained a lot more respect for the work that goes into creating a functioning consumer product, so I’ll keep playing with Ubi and the integration, hoping to see things improve. Enabling lighting macros may not be too far off.
For those wanting to play with voice integration, there’s also Shortcut, an app that lets you tell your SmartThings home what to do using your phone (although once you open the app and tell it what to do, you might as well just open SmartThings) and there’s also Ivee, which works with the Staples Connect home hub system.
The value in most of these will be in the user taking time to program a series of events to set off with one voice command. I’m hoping to get that set up this weekend.
This story was corrected with the anticipated retail price. That price is $299.