Zuli Brings Smart Home to Your Pocket (via the Smartphone)

8/27/14Follow @mlamonica

Zuli thinks the smart phone is the Trojan Horse for home automation. Now, it has seed funding to advance that idea.

The San Francisco-based company today said it has raised $1.65 million from investors including Menlo Ventures, Winklevoss Capital, Logitech, DeNA, XG Ventures, and angel investors. With the money, Zuli will be able to expand its team and deliver its first product: a smart plug, which it intends to send to beta customers in the coming weeks, CEO and co-founder Taylor Umphreys says.

It might be hard to get excited about a smart plug—a little gadget that plugs into a wall socket. People can plug an appliance or lamp into the smart plug, which connects to a wireless network. But Zuli has an interesting technical approach that could help spread home automation and energy efficiency.

Its smart plugs use the wireless protocol Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate with other smart plugs and a smartphone. Using an app, a consumer can set schedules and automate tasks based on where they are. For instance, the air conditioner can turn on when someone enters the front door, or the lights and coffee maker can be scheduled to turn on at a certain hour.

That’s not very different from what the growing number of other home-automation gear does. But Zuli’s approach doesn’t require people to install a hub for smart-home hardware, and the phone provides a straightforward way to detect a person’s location.Energy

Typically, smart appliances or lights connect via Zigbee or WiFi to a hub, which uses a home broadband network to connect to the Internet. By creating a mesh network and using the smartphone as the main control device, Zuli users don’t need a dedicated hub.

It’s a simpler installation and makes it easier to program devices, Umphreys says. “We really wanted to focus on the user experience because existing products are still really manual and are essentially making the phone a remote control,” he says. “But over time, that doesn’t really make life easier.”

The plugs are expected to cost $50 apiece, or $135 for a three-pack. The company’s technology allows Bluetooth to create a mesh network and work over a distance of about three meters. The company ran a successful Kickstarter campaign and worked out of the Plug and Play Tech Center incubator in Sunnyvale, CA.

The smart plugs also have occupancy sensors and can monitor how much energy different devices use. That means they can collect data to show how much energy an air conditioner uses during different hours of the day, for instance, or turn off electronics if no one is a room for a certain amount of time.

Creating apps to analyze energy data is one direction the company plans to go, Umphreys says. Another is exploring ways to use the WiFi in smartphones to connect to smart home gear from other companies.

People have been predicting that the smart home is about to take off for decades. And now, with cheaper hardware, it does appear to be finally gaining momentum. Until now, home automation has typically meant expensive and complex installations, often involving multiple pieces of equipment.

With smart plugs and clever apps, though, consumers can start experimenting with what works for them, whether it’s programming lights or setting thermostat schedules. That makes the lowly smart plug a little more exciting.

Martin LaMonica is a national correspondent for Xconomy covering energy and technology. You can reach him at mlamonica@xconomy.com or @mlamonica. Follow @mlamonica

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  • pwiz

    Another smart plug?