The smart home has an interface problem and six students at Duke think they solved it with a Raspberry Pi and Apple’s U1 chip. They believe that most current methods of controlling smart devices — voice control, tricky apps with multiple menus, motion sensors — are cumbersome and sometimes frustrating. What the smart home needs, they say, is an intuitive control interface and automations that are triggered based on where you are in your home. In short, one app to control everything. And they are not wrong.
Fluid One is their solution. A smart home app that uses ultra-wideband technology in Apple’s iPhones, Fluid can control connected lights, locks, cameras, thermostats and more in two ways: a point-and-click control interface and location-based automations.
Point your iPhone at a smart light bulb and the appropriate controls will automatically appear to brighten, dim, change color, or turn the light on or off. Or swipe your phone up or down to control a device, no need to touch. “It’s like the HomePod Mini/iPhone transfer, but for any compatible device,” said Tim Ho, one of Fluid’s six co-founders. The edge.
The app can also work in the background to trigger smart home automations based on your phone’s location as you move. For example, set the lights in a hallway to come on when you walk through it and turn off when you leave. Or have the TV turned on, adjust the thermostat, and dim the lights if you sit on the couch after 6 p.m.
If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because iOS developer Bastian Andelefski developed a prototype app last year to do just this. At the time, he said he needed someone to develop the hardware to make it work in your house. And that’s what the team behind Fluid is trying to do, with Andelefksi on board as a technical advisor.
The system combines hardware (UWB-compatible smart beacons and an optional smart hub) with an augmented reality-powered app that uses Apple’s ARKit framework to generate an AR map of your home and detect where your phone is. and which smart device it probably points to. The system can make those guesses because those ultra-wideband beacons are mounted on your walls and the phone can measure the distance to each of them. It’s essentially indoor GPS, but with UWB beacons instead of satellites.
When you first set up the system, go to each device you want to add, log its location into the app, and connect it to a beacon. Each beacon has a range of 18 to 20 feet to encompass all the devices in that space.
Fluid says this creates a context-aware space that your iPhone uses to control the devices, either automatically or on demand. When you enter or exit each range, different automations are triggered based on the time of day and other conditions, and different device controls appear on your iPhone based on where you are closest. You can also use the app to control devices in other rooms, not just nearby.
“Our system calculates the position of the phone in 3D space by simultaneously measuring the distance to multiple Smart Nodes on the walls of your room,” explains Rahul Prakash, co-founder of Fluid. “It then determines the orientation of the phone using the phone’s augmented reality engine (camera, compass, gyroscope and accelerometer). These readings are compared to your smart device’s preset locations to deduce what you’re likely pointing at.”
Fluid One essentially turns your iPhone into a remote, replicating some of the functionality of the much-loved Logitech Harmony and overpriced Sevenhugs remotes. Now discontinued, these were physical remotes for connected devices, including entertainment systems. Fluid One has an IR controller built into the hub hardware to pick up where those other remotes left off. Incidentally, Sevenhugs was recently bought by Qorov, a semiconductor company that makes UWB chips.
Fluid One is launching today on Kickstarter with a $100,000 goal to start production of the system. Early birds can pick up a Fluid One Lite kit for $249, which includes four smart nodes to provide the point-and-click capability. Additional tiers range from $449 to $749 (more money gets you more nodes for a bigger home) and add a smart hub to provide the location-based automation capability.
When the product officially launches – Fluid is targeting early 2024 for general release – the price will be $399 to $899 (apparently those UWB chips are expensive).
The system only works with an iPhone 11 or newer, and while other phone manufacturers, including Samsung and Google, use UWB, Fluid doesn’t work with those phones yet. Shrey Sambhwani, co-founder of Fluid, says the team is “waiting for a robust software interface” before supporting Android.
When (and if) Fluid launches — the ship date for Kickstarter backers is winter 2023, and the company has a working prototype — the system should be compatible with a long list of smart home devices and ecosystems.
These include Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Samsung SmartThings, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices, Ring, Nest, Philips Hue, Ecobee, Lutron, Nanoleaf, iRobot, Sonos and many more. This broad compatibility is due to the system brain built on a Raspberry Pi smart hub with Home Assistant and HomeBridge software.
Ho also points out that there are no cameras or microphones built into the hardware; in addition, the location data used to trigger automations resides between your phone and the beacons and is not sent to a server anywhere.
Fluid will also be compatible with Matter, and Ho says the arrival of the new smart home standard is one of the factors that made Fluid One possible. “If you have multiple devices, you see the value of our system by linking them together,” he says. “Matter brings unity to the smart home, so we can link even more devices together.”
The downsides of Fluid are obvious, if not obviously fatal. It only works with iPhones and you have to carry your phone around the house with you. When I tested RoomMe (a similar concept but with Bluetooth), that was my biggest problem. I don’t feel like walking around my house with my phone in my hand or even in my pocket.
If Fluid worked with an Apple Watch, it would be more attractive. Sambhwani says it’s not technically possible yet, but a future update from Apple could make it possible.
In a perfect world, this kind of technology would be built into existing appliances in our smart homes. The idea of sticking more single-use white plastic hubs and beacons in my house isn’t appealing (and doubly so for $900). But if every Thread boundary router also had a UWB chip, this would be a good idea, although potentially prohibitively expensive.
The obvious solution is for Apple to adopt/develop this technology and turn its HomePod Minis into more multifunctional beacons that leverage the power of the UWB hardware they already have — more than just transferring music from your phone to the smart speaker. If Apple is interested in this idea, I know some bright students they should talk to.