CSR will give Bluetooth gear in the smart home super powers

This year is going to be a big one for Bluetooth technologies in the smart home. Thanks to some updates in the Bluetooth standard from a year ago, we’re seeing products such as light bulbs, outlets and more using the radio technology to connect devices. But it’s not just the standards update that’s helped; a few firms have also introduced software that have allowed companies to turn their Bluetooth radios into a mesh network that offers more resiliency and range for the technology.

The Bluetooth SIG will embrace mesh

One of the more popular is CSRmesh, the software designed by CSR, the company that helped invent Bluetooth and is now in the process of being acquired by Qualcomm. Now a year old, and primarily used in lighting products like those out from Samsung or Avi-On, the CSRmesh tech lets you group up to 64,000 bulbs or devices together.

But it can do so much more. And soon it will. I took some time to discuss the technology with Rick Walker, who is in marketing with CSR to discover what’s next for the technology and whether we may see it integrated into the official Bluetooth standard anytime soon.

The answer on that last question is a solid maybe. Tuesday, the Blueooth SIG will be announcing the creation of a working group chaired by Robin Heydon, the creator of CSRmesh to study the addition of mesh networking to the Bluetooth Smart standard. While it may not adopt the CSR standard exactly, it’s likely that we will see a mesh technology added to the Bluetooth standard and some aspects of the CSR attributes win out.

Sleepy sensors and actuators

In the meantime, CSR is pushing ahead with the launch in April of a new Home Automation version of the CSRmesh technology that will add new capabilities to the tech to preserve the battery life of sensors and things like door locks in the home. the update will let sensors using the tech wake only when there’s new information to be sent and when they do send it, they can send it to a proxy device, such a light bulb that’s plugged in if the receiving device isn’t online.

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The second capability it adds is a different wake pattern for actuators such as a door lock or a vent control. These will wake often for a very short amount of time to listen for a message and then go back to sleep. The idea is is should take between 30 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds for a message to hit and flip the bolt, vent or other piece that requires movement.

The goal is to save as much power as possible, without sacrificing responsiveness in the network. Other elements of the CSR mesh that are pretty exciting from a home and building automation point of view are the grouping features and ability to use proximity to trigger events. These won’t be out until the October time frame when the next iteration of the home automation version of the CSRmesh standard comes out, but I want them today.

The asset model looks promising

Because Bluetooth radios are very distance sensitive, you can use them to understand how close you are to a particular item. So when your phone or key fob, for example, is within 20 feet of a lock it might open it. Certain devices can do this today. But as part of the CSRmesh standard that could become much easier to implement, and one could do it for a variety of devices. So your locks could open, or your lights you turn on (or off). It’s part of what Walker called the asset model, where each device with a radio is tagged as an asset and devices respond to it.

Also as part of the asset model, the devices in your home could find a particular asset. So if your keys have a fob, you could issue a command asking your home to find your keys and all of the BLE devices on the mesh could send out a signal. Your kitchen lights might send back a message saying, the key fob is nearby, while a Bluetooth outlet on the counter gets the strongest signals and signals that they are closest to it.

All of these sound pretty awesome, although there are other mesh networking technologies out there including the older ZigBee and Z-wave radios that are in millions of devices. They don’t have the advantage of being on people’s handsets, which is something Bluetooth has going for it. And to get the benefits of CSRmesh, all one has to do is download an application that uses the CSRmesh software on top of a radio running Bluetooth 4.0, which is what current generation iOS and Android handsets are using.

On the security front, the CSRmesh uses AES encryption to stop eavesdroppers and authentication at both ends to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. It also prevents replay attacks where someone can copy messages and replay them, by inserting a numerical sequence at the beginning of each radio transmission that is then replayed out of sequence if copied.

We’ll have to wait for some of the cool features, although the security elements are already in the mesh today. What I take from all of this is that we’re going to be able to solve many of the problems of the smart home many different ways which means standardization is probably a ways off. And that in turn means, it’s hard to go out there and shell out a lot of money for new devices. Although with Bluetooth I guess you don’t have to spend all that much.

Quietyme seeks to track and tame noisy nurses and neighbors

Noise is a significant problem in hospitals, costing them patient satisfaction and possibly dollars now that certain payments are tied to satisfaction metrics. It also can be a source of conflict and dissatisfaction in the hospitality and property rental industries, which is why Quietyme, a startup in Madison, Wisconsin, thinks it is sitting on a big business opportunity.

CEO John Bialk explained that his company already has pilot deals with more than 20 hospitals right now. Quietyme makes a ZigBee-based series of sensors that track the noise levels and then sells an analytics service to monitor them. The software is more expensive in the initial months when it is learning and tracking noise and then teaching the nurses in the hospital how to reduce it. Then the cost drops to a cheaper maintenance mode fee.

Quietyme System

The system works by placing a noise sensor in each room and hallway and then measuring the noise levels. The software looks for the peak levels for each second of the day because average noise is useless since there’s generally a lot of silence. When shown graphs of peak noise throughout the day, especially during times when people are sleeping, it becomes an effective tool to train people to change their behaviors.

Bialk said the ability to show people how their behavior affected noise levels that day was essential to helping them change their habits. The immediacy of the data is what enables people to change. It also can help bring the nurses into the process as collaborators because they can see the noise spikes and recollect what they were doing when it happened. That allows them to see where they can change.

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Outside of hospitals, Quietyme is also being used in apartments, in part because noise is also an issue that can set neighbors against each other, but also because the sensors track humidity, temperature and light levels. A rise in humidity can indicate a leaky pipe before it bursts or sudden change in temperature can tell a property owner if something is amiss.

Those same sensors are also why the hotel industry is so interested in the company’s products as well. Bialk, who was in property management prior to getting involved in startups, said that he thinks real estate is an area where the internet of things can have significant effects if companies want to build markets there. Considering the benefits of connected locks, data aggregating sensors and other connected products, he’d likely find plenty of others who would agree with him.

For example, the company, which was founded in 2013, has raised about $1.2 million in two rounds with American Family Insurance’s venture arm as its lead investor in both rounds. American Family invested because the possibility to stop catastrophic insurance claims before they happen, thanks to sensors in hotels or apartments, is worth investigating. Bialk said the system already detected a pipe that was on the verge of bursting in a hotel.

So far last year Quietyme has made just over $300,000 in revenue in 2014 and is still trying to meet demand for its products in the market that is serving today. It has plenty of room to expand and plans to add more sensors over time. Water sensors to check for leaks are next for example. As the focus intensifies on the smart home, Quietyme plans to make the most out of selling similar products into the commercial markets.

SmartThings joins Z-wave Alliance board

With the launch of the Thread radio protocol, I’ve already heard several people deride ZigBee and Z-wave as legacy standards for smart home networking, which petrifies me given that I have at least $2,000 invested in Z-wave gear. So I was excited to see SmartThings join the board of the Z-wave Alliance on Thursday morning, indicating that perhaps it’s time isn’t yet up. Other board members include ADT, Ingersoll-Rand, Jasco Products, LG Uplus, Nortek Security & Control, and Sigma Designs.

Silicon Labs buys Bluetooth and Wi-Fi module maker for $61M

In another bet on the internet of things, chip maker Silicon Labs has purchased Bluegiga Technologies Oy, a Finnish company that makes wireless radio modules for $61 million in cash. Bluegiga makes ultra-low-power Bluetooth Smart, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules for the industrial automation, consumer electronics, automotive, retail, residential, and health and fitness markets. Austin, Texas-based Silicon Labs already makes microcontrollers, sensors, ZigBee and Thread radios and mesh networking software. Adding more radios to the mix just makes sense and makes it more of a single stop for anyone looking to make a connected device.

The deluge continues: 3 smart home hubs worth checking out

I thought we’d be over hubs by now, but I was wrong. They are still coming hot and heavy, and if the Consumer Electronics Show was any indication, there are still more heading our way. So instead of doing deep dives into what I think is a pretty full market, I figured I’d start doing some roundups of products and hit on the features that make them interesting, because honestly, who can keep up anymore?

Today’s batch are the hubs found on crowdfunding sites. They have some cool tweaks that make them a bit different, but of course, as with all crowdfunding efforts, who knows when they will actually deliver.

Of all of these Hive looks to be the most likely one I’d back, and Oomi is the only one I’ve seen in person. Let’s get to it.

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Hive: This system combines a hub and speaker (or series of speakers) with an app that lets you control the whole shebang. The Kickstarter promises that the hub not only controls the speakers but also your connected gadgets via an impressive array of radios, including Z-wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The video shows a Nest, motion sensors and other devices working with the hub. The speakers not only tie in to become “the voice of your home,” but also act as a sound system that can be linked to play the same music all over your house or separate music from sites that appear to be supported by Google’s Chromecast ready program. The campaign shows the Spotify logo but makes no mention of it elsewhere.

A backup battery and integrated 3G modem mean you have backup connectivity if your power goes out. The app will be available  for Android and iOS and everything is expected to ship in May. The retail price is expected to be $299 for the hub and $199 for each speaker, although the Kickstarter prices are cheaper. Those waiting for retail might get a discount if they buy optional security monitoring packages along with their purchase. This is certainly something I’m going to look for later this summer, although the Kickstarter is not doing well so far.

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Oomi: I ran into these guys at CES and thought they had a unique way of using NFC radios to get devices to connect to the system. Basically, you tap to touch a device to onboard a sensor to the main hub. It’s fun, but it only works with the Oomi products and any NFC-enabled phones. Still, even technophobes could use this and get started with a smart home. The main component is a stylish black cube that includes a lot of sensors, a microphone, a speaker and a video camera. It acts a security and communication device and has an IR sensor for controlling televisions and a variety home automation and media devices.

The system also comes with a connected outlet and a tablet to control the whole system. In keeping with the simple idea, Oomi is a learning system and once you connect your devices to it, it starts learning how you use your home and then starts building up its own rules and schedules for users. The folks behind Oomi already plan to launch a colorful light bulb, an air quality monitor and a Chromecast-like media streaming stick for the system. It also supports other Z-wave devices and says it integrates with other popular devices such as Sonos, Hue lights and Nest. Retail cost should be about $450 for a cube, a plug and the tablet, but it costs as low as $230 on Indiegogo with delivery in August and an adaptive intelligence engine released in November 2015(presumably after it is trained on early user data). I like this, but the integrated camera kind of freaks me out because it could monitor my home. I did see that it offers a shutter for the camera for folks like me.

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Branto: This is a glowing orb that plays music and changes color. It certainly offers less functionality than Oomi or Hive, but sometimes simpler is better. What sets Branto apart from almost anything out there is that it contains a 360-degree rotating camera that you control from an app. Plus, it has two microphones. So you can see your whole home or teleconference and look around the table.

The smart home elements come in because Branto also has a motion sensor, IR output, connected speaker capability that connected to various services and the ability to control popular home automation devices like WeMo, Nest and Philips Hue lights. The Kickstarter campaign notes that Branto will offer various options such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular modules down the line. The Branto will retail for about $500, although the Kickstarter prices are less than that, and it will ship to backers in September.

Wink’s rocky launch hasn’t stopped it from gaining market share

Wink, the relatively new company that spun out from Quirky to sell connected home devices and software, is looking to be a serious contender in the home automation sector with the launch of new devices next month and a successful holiday season. In an interview this week with Brett Worthington, VP and general manager at Wink, he said that Wink added more than 3,000 hubs a day on Black Friday and Christmas Day and a new user every 12 seconds (there are more users than hubs because some devices don’t require a hub to work). Those customers added 3.5 devices per account.

He also listed an array of new devices we can expect support for included Z-wave and ZigBee sensors as well as new garage door openers from Quirky and Linear. We’ll see those in the beginning of February in Home Deport stores and supported in the app as part of an app update.

So let’s talk about the bump in user numbers over the holiday. Currently I’m seeing that on the Android side about 50,000 people have downloaded the app according to the tally in the Play store. In most home automation setups involving hubs, iOS users are about 60 or 70 percent of the user base, but I don’t know what Wink’s breakdown is specifically, and Worthington wouldn’t give me the user numbers. However, thanks to the partnership with Home Depot, the Wink hub and devices are in stores nationwide, and aggressive pricing over the holidays may have pushed people to give Wink a try.

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The promotions Home Depot ran over the holidays — buy two connected devices and get a hub for $0.99 — were similar to the deal it ran when the hub launched last June, but maybe folks were just in the gift-giving mood or ready to give home automation a whirl. This is impressive, especially given the horrible reviews that Wink received after its launch last July.

An eye on security

The hub was also hacked last summer at Defcon, and there are several posts that show you how to root the Wink hub so you can control your own device to avoid sending your data to the cloud. Yet these issues have not stopped the Wink from finding an audience, so I wanted to find out from Kauffman what we can expect from Wink. The answer is: quite a bit.

First up is security. The company announced at CES that it hired Brian Knopf, who handled security at Belkin, to help it ensure that problems like the Defcon issue (which was immediately dealt with) don’t happen again. One of the problems with the device security came from trying to get the hub out so quickly in the first place, Worthington admitted. The hub, which was manufactured by Flextronics, originally contained software for the embedded side that Flextronics engineers wrote.

“We built that hub with Flextronics very quickly,” said Worthington. “There were a couple firmware bugs and Wink fixed it. We’ve also rewritten some of things we found that [Flextronics] did that weren’t necessarily breaches but that we wanted to make better.”

The Wink hub and GE Link lights.

The Wink hub and GE Link lights.

Some of those included changing some of the radio software so the radio used for the Kidde smoke detectors could also talk to other devices that used that frequency. Wink has kept users up to date on the security software by forcing users to update their hubs if they want to add new devices. In general it’s just good tech hygiene to update your connected device firmware when requested, given all of the security weaknesses being discovered in them.

Giving users more sensor options

The second thing Wink is improving is the roster of devices. On February 2, it will launch several new connected products with an emphasis on new sensors — something currently lacking in the current line up of supported devices. They include a glass break sensor, open/close sensors called Tripper that will sell for $40 for a 2-pack, and a motion sensor. The nice thing about the sensors is that by adding these it also opens up the Wink to other Z-wave and ZigBee sensors in that device class, so those of you with ZigBee devices that support the Home Automation 1.2 version of the spec can use those with the Wink hub and those with Z-wave open/close and motion sensors should also be able to use those as well.

tripper

Wink will also launch a ZigBee connected outlet that will be installed in the wall, and should then let people use other ZigBee connected outlets. That will be nice because right now we’re kind of limited to the Z-wave outlets that sit under the light switch section or the GE Quirky Pivot Power option. Finally we’ll see two new garage door opener options, the GE Quirky Ascend option and support for a new connected option from Linear, which is now called the GoControl Garage Door Controller.

Some of the new products coming on February 2 are available on the Wink store but aren’t supported yet in the app. But as of that date they should be supported in the app and soon after will be in Home Deport stores nationwide. and later this year we’ll also see some other improvements from Wink including a new version of the hub hardware that should get users better control over their Philips Hue lighting with intelligence built into the hub as well as a partnership with Whirlpool that was announced at CES.

It may have launched quickly and with some really bad reviews, but a big marketing effort and some serious investment in the product could mean that Wink becomes a real threat in the home automation space despite those early flaws.

Cree’s $15 connected LEDs work with (almost) everything

For those bargain shoppers out there hunting for a connected bulb, Cree, the company that brought the first blue LED light to market, has a deal for you. It’s shipping a $15 connected warm, white LED that rivals the GE Link bulb in both price and functionality. And like the Link bulb, it’s compatible with the Wink hub system.

In fact, the Cree bulb wants to be compatible with just about everything. It uses ZigBee radios and Mike Watson, VP of Product Strategy with Cree, says the company is constantly evaluating new standards such as AllJoyn’s lighting standard or the upcoming Thread protocol. But currently you can link it into any hub that has ZigBee capability and ZigBee Light Link certified hubs, including Philips Hue, WeMo Link Hub and GE Link.

There are no hubs to plug in to buy or apps to download here: Cree just wants to sell you the connected bulb. That’s a bummer for the consumer who doesn’t have anything yet in the connected home, but obviously Cree is betting the market doesn’t stay unconnected for long. As for the bulb, it provides 815 Lumens and offers a high quality light. I would do my makeup by it, and find it a bit less yellow than the GE light and a bit less white than the Philips Lux white lights.

However, for those trying to place one of these in a dimmer lamp, don’t do it. It is a rare LED that can handle a dimmer without emitting a high-pitched buzzing noise (surprisingly, the GE Link can). The Cree bulb is no exception. When I tried it in a dimmer lamp, it sounded a bit like crickets from about 10 feet away. That said, in a normal lamp its dimming capabilities are fine.

So if you want to upgrade your traditional light bulbs for some smarter ones, this is a price point that might make it worth your while if you’ve got an existing hub, don’t have dimming fixtures and prefer the look of a more traditional bulb. You’ll find them at Home Depot stores later this month.

SmartThings’ next-generation hub will support Thread and the OIC

Samsung’s B.K. Yoon, the president of its Consumer Electronics group, gave an inspiring call to openness for the internet of things in a keynote speech at International CES on Monday night that also happened to contain a few tidbits of news about the SmartThings smart home platform that Samsung purchased last summer.

In a conversation last night with Alex Hawkinson, the CEO of SmartThings (shown above with the version 2 of the hub), I found a bit more about the next generation hub planned for April as well as the new premium service tier that will also be coming out in that time frame. I also learned that while the hub will support “legacy” standards like Z-wave and ZigBee while adding Bluetooth Smart, SmartThings is looking ahead to new standards and is planning to support Thread, the mesh-radio protocol that Nest and others have proposed as well as Intel’s Open Interconnect Consortium.

Hawkinson said that if the devices come, they would also support AllJoyn as well. But let’s focus on the hubs for a moment, because that’s what the die-hard smarthome folks are most interested in. First off, the second generation of the hub is about the same size, although square with rounded edges and heavier than the current hub. That’s because it has a set of batteries in there so when your power goes out your hub stays on.

There’s also room for a cellular USB stick if you wish, so you can also have backup internet (See correction note below). Hawkinson said it has always bothered him that given his reason for starting SmartThings — the flooding of his Colorado vacation home — the current version of the product wouldn’t have actually helped because the power was out. Now, the version two of his product would have actually helped.

Alex Hawkinson and BK Yoon onstage at CES

Alex Hawkinson and BK Yoon onstage at CES

That brings us to the premium service level announced. Hawkinson said that people wanted things that the infrastructure couldn’t provide without costing SmartThings money, such as video storage (the hub didn’t have video capability either, but the new one will) and alert escalation. So now when an alert happens, users can set up chains of contacts that can take a call or texts. If a child coming home from school doesn’t trigger an alert a parent might get a text and then a neighbor. If a leak is detected, maybe the escalation goes to a plumber.

This isn’t just a revenue opportunity in terms of charging the customer, it’s also a way to get service providers like HVAC repairmen, plumbers and others involved in the smarthome. Imagine if when you are setting up your SmartThings smarthome and you activate your water sensor and you get a list of local plumbers to call as part of the escalation service. If they get a call, SmartThings gets a referral fee.

It’s like AdWords for the real world. What if when you sign up for this, your home insurer gives you a discount? It might offset somewhat the fee that SmartThings charges. It might not. Hawkinson was mum on the fees for the new hub, the premium service and any other pricing.

Other things to note about the launch are that several new devices and products will be supported by SmartThings, such as Chamberlain garage doors, Honeywell Thermostats, Nest Thermostats, Philips Hue lights, Netgear products, August locks, the previously announced Samsung appliances and new apps for the Gear S and Samsung Smart TVs.

The app will get an update too with more suggested use cases while still letting people program crazy ideas if they want. The sensors will also shrink to about a third of their current size and we’ll see SmartThings eventually move to use Samsung’s Tizen OS according to SmartThings co-founder and CTO Jeff Hagins.

That last tidbit is especially interesting when you consider that Samsung said that Tizen would be the OS for all of its Smart TVs going forward, and that Yoon said that Samsung plans to eventually make every device it sells into a hub for the internet of things.

It sounds like Samsung may be trying to push Tizen as the OS for the internet of things after losing out on mobile to iOS and Android.

Correction: The original article stated that the version 2 SmartThings hub “has room for a SIM card” for backup connectivity. The article was updated at 3p.m. PT to correct that it does not have room for a SIM card, but a cellular USB stick can be used for backup cell connectivity.

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