Meet Ubi, the tiny voice-activated computer that wants to control your smart home

Ubi computer

While it’s small enough to be an oversized wall wart, the Ubi is far more interesting for what it can do. Plug this tiny computer into an AC outlet, connect it to your Wi-Fi network, and you gain the ability to control many of your home-control systems—lighting, thermostat, music-streaming services, and so on—using nothing more than voice commands.

Its developer says Ubi can do other things, too, including sending text messages, adding appointments and reminders to your calendar, and answering simple questions, such as “What’s the weather?” or “Who invented the light bulb?”

Ubi computer

Ubi is an inexpensive voice-activated computer that could be a perfect addition to a smart home. 

Ubi—it’s pronounced “oo-bee,” by the way—draws its name from “ubiquitous,” because it’s designed to operate 24/7. The little computer entered beta testing in 2013, following the completion of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $230,000 (of a $36,000 goal). There are 2500 beta systems on the market now, but the finished product goes on sale today for $299.

“We received good constructive feedback from our user base,” Ubi cofounder Leor Grebler told me in a phone call yesterday. “So we’re not starting from scratch. But some people were expecting an Apple product and were disappointed even though they knew it was beta. The product we’re shipping now is closer to the Apple end of the spectrum.”

Ubi is a small Android computer comprised of two ARM processors; two microphones; a pair of speakers; a Wi-Fi adapter; a collection of sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, air pressure, light, and sound; and LEDs to let you know when it’s listening.

The headless computer (meaning it has no display) runs a version of the Android OS, and its manufacturer, UCIC (Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation), operates a Web portal through which you can teach it new tricks, called Lessons.

Ubi computer

Ubi off to a good start with support for ecosystems like SmartThings and WeMo, as well as individual devices such as the Nest thermostat. 

End users won’t need to handle all the programming chores on their own, however. Ubi already works with a number of popular services and devices, including the SmartThings and Belkin WeMo ecosystems, the Nest thermostat, and the IFTTT (If This Then That) service. It can also play musical requests, relaying your wishes to your Grooveshark or SoundCloud subscription.

Your wish is Ubi's command

Beyond that, Grebler says Ubi can control pretty much any device or system that can handle an http request. “Our goal is to be a voice layer for interconnected devices,” he said. “We want to add voice integration to all the services that are already out there.”

Ubi computer

A computer without a display? You can program the Ubi from a smartphone, tablet, or PC with Internet access to UCIC's web portal. 

To that end, the company has developed an open API and is encouraging DIYers to experiment with it. Grebler said they’ve heard from beta testers who are using the Ubi to add voice-recognition capabilities to everything from the inexpensive Vera home-control hub to very high-end Control 4 systems.

Grebler told me UCIC has also been talking to Alarm.com, the SAAS (software as a service) provider that provides back-end services for home-security/home-control providers such as Vivint, Front Point Security, and many others. Sonos control is also in the Ubi development pipeline, according to Grebler.

The Ubi might be ubiquitous, but it’s not omnipresent. Install it in the kitchen and there’s a good chance it won’t be able to hear you shout, “start the coffee maker,” as you’re getting out of the shower. “Out of the gate, it’s a stand-alone unit,” Grebler said when I asked him about this. “So you’d need to deploy one in each room you spend a lot of time in.”

But Grebler also said they’re working on an Android app that can turn your smartphone into an Ubi microphone. “If I’m on my sofa, I can talk to my phone and it will relay voice commands to the Ubi. You could also set up any Bluetooth speaker to be the Ubi’s voice output. It wouldn’t be easy, but it’s possible.”

You can do it!

Lest you get the impression the Ubi will be marketed only to diehard enthusiasts who don’t mind doing a bit of high-level programming, Grebler insists the computer will be very easy to deploy. “Connecting it to Wi-Fi is all the technical knowledge one would need. It should be fairly simple for a non-techie to install. If you can set up a Gmail account, you can set up an Ubi.”

UCIC is sending us an eval unit so we’ll be able to put Ubi through its paces, and I’ll have a full hands-on review soon. In the meantime, what do you think of the state of the Internet of Things market today? Are you interested in transforming your domicile into a smart home? Or do you think all this connected-home business is much ado about nothing? Let us know in the comments section, below.

This story, "Meet Ubi, the tiny voice-activated computer that wants to control your smart home" was originally published by TechHive.

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