This Kickstarter idea transforms your iPhone into a magic wand for your smart home.

 This Kickstarter idea transforms your iPhone into a magic wand for your smart home.

The smart home has an interface problem, which six Duke undergrads believe they have solved using a Raspberry Pi and Apple's U1 processor. They feel that the majority of today's techniques for operating smart gadgets — voice control, finicky applications with several menus, and motion sensors — are time-consuming and occasionally annoying. They believe that the smart home requires an easy control interface and automations that activate based on where you are in your house. Essentially, one app to rule them all. And they are correct.

Their answer is Fluid One. Fluid is a smart home software that uses ultra-wideband technology in Apple's iPhones to manage linked lighting, locks, cameras, thermostats, and other devices in two ways: through a point-and-click control interface and through location-based automations.

Simply point your iPhone at a smart light bulb, and the appropriate controls appear to brighten, dim, alter the color, or switch the light on or off. Alternatively, flip your phone up and down to manage a gadget without touching it. "It's similar to the HomePod Mini / iPhone handoff, but for any compatible device," says Tim Ho, one of Fluid's six co-founders.

The software may also function in the background to activate smart home automations depending on your phone's location as you move around. Set the lights in a corridor, for example, to turn on as you pass through and off as you depart. Alternatively, when you sit on your sofa after 6 p.m., have the TV turn on, the heat change, and the lights decrease.

If this seems familiar, it's because iOS developer Bastian Andelefski created a prototype app for this purpose last year. He stated at the time that he required someone to create the hardware to make it operate in your house. And that's exactly what the Fluid team is trying, with Andelefksi on board as a technical advisor.

The solution combines hardware — UWB enabled smart beacons and an optional smart hub — with an augmented-reality software that uses Apple's ARKit framework to produce an AR map of your house and recognize where your phone is and which smart gadget it's most likely pointing at. Because those ultra-wideband beacons are set on your walls and the phone can assess its distance from each, the system can make those assumptions. It's essentially GPS for inside, however instead of satellites, it uses UWB beacons.

Initially, you travel to each device you wish to add, register its location in the app, and link it to a beacon. Each beacon has a range of 18 to 20 feet, enough to cover all devices in that area.

Fluid says that this provides a context-aware world in which your iPhone controls the devices automatically or on demand. Various automations occur based on time of day and other factors when you approach or depart each range, and different device controls show on your iPhone based on what you are closest to. You may even use the app to control gadgets in other rooms outside the one you're in.

"Our method determines the phone's position in 3D space by measuring its distance to many Smart Nodes on your room's walls at the same time," Fluid co-founder Rahul Prakash adds. "It then identifies the phone's orientation using the phone's augmented reality engine" (camera, compass, gyroscope and accelerometer). These measures are matched to your previously saved smart device locations to determine what you are most likely aiming towards."

Fluid One, which essentially turns your iPhone into a remote control, duplicates some of the capabilities of the popular Logitech Harmony and expensive Sevenhugs remotes. These were physical remote controllers for connected devices, such as entertainment systems, and have since been retired. Fluid One's hub hardware includes an IR controller to assist take up where the other remotes left off. Sevenhugs was recently bought by Qorov, a semiconductor startup that makes UWB chips.

Fluid One is launching on Kickstarter today with a $100,000 target to fund the system's manufacture. Early adopters may purchase a Fluid One Lite kit for $249, which includes four smart nodes that enable the point-and-click functionality. Additional levels run from $449 to $749 (more money buys you more nodes for a bigger house) and include a smart hub to enable location-based automation.

When the device is formally released — Fluid anticipates a broad release in early 2024 — the price range will be $399 to $899. (apparently, those UWB chips are expensive).

The technology is only compatible with iPhones 11 and newer, and while other phone manufacturers, like as Samsung and Google, use UWB, Fluid is not currently compatible with those phones. Fluid co-founder Shrey Sambhwani said the team is "waiting for a viable software interface" before supporting Android.

When (and if) Fluid debuts — the business has a functioning prototype and a ship date for Kickstarter supporters in winter 2023 — the system should be interoperable with a wide range of smart home devices and ecosystems.

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 are among them. This broad interoperability is due to the system's brain being based on a Raspberry Pi smart hub running Home Assistant and HomeBridge software.

Ho also emphasizes that no cameras or microphones are built in any of its devices, and that the location data required to trigger automations is transferred between your phone and the beacons rather than to a server elsewhere. 

Fluid will also be Matter compatible, and Ho claims that the introduction of the new smart home standard was one of the elements that enabled Fluid One to be developed. "When you have several devices, you realize the utility of our technology in being able to connect them," he explains. "Matter is unifying the smart home, so we'll be able to connect even more gadgets."

The Fluid One app locates smart gadgets by using battery-powered smart beacons placed throughout your house.

The disadvantages of Fluid are evident, if not lethal. It only works with iPhones, and you must keep your phone with you at all times. That was my major complaint when I tested RoomMe (a similar concept but utilizing Bluetooth). I don't want to have to go about my house holding my phone or even carrying it in my pocket.

Fluid would be more appealing if it worked with an Apple Watch. According to Sambhwani, it's not technically viable right now, but a future Apple upgrade might make it a reality.

In an ideal world, this type of technology would be incorporated into existing smart home gadgets. Sticking extra single-use, white plastic hubs and beacons about my house is not attractive (especially at $900). However, if every Thread boundary router also had a UWB chip, this would be a no-brainer, albeit perhaps prohibitively expensive.

The obvious solution is for Apple to adopt/develop this technology and transform their HomePod Minis into more multi-purpose beacons that use the capability of the existing UWB hardware — beyond simply streaming music from your phone to the smart speaker. If Apple is interested in this concept, I know a couple bright students they should speak with.

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