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This new startup uses the iPhone’s UWB feature for controlling your smart home

The smart home has an interface problem, and six undergrads from Duke think they’ve solved it with a Raspberry Pi and Apple’s U1 chip. They believe most of today’s methods for controlling smart devices — voice control, fiddly 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 fire off based on where you are in your home. Basically, one app to rule it all. And they’re not wrong.

Fluid One is their solution. A smart home app that leverages ultra-wideband technology in Apple’s iPhones, Fluid can control connected lighting, locks, cameras, thermostats, and more in two ways: a point-and-click control interface and location-based automations.

Just point your iPhone at a smart light bulb, and the correct controls automatically appear to brighten, dim, change color or turn the light on or off. Or, flick your phone up or down to control a device, no touch required. “It’s like the HomePod Mini / iPhone handoff but for any compatible device,” Tim Ho, one of the six co-founders of Fluid, tells The Verge.

The app can also work in the background to trigger smart home automations based on the location of your phone as you move around. For example, set the lights in a hallway to turn on as you walk through, and off as you leave. Or, have the TV turn on, the thermostat adjust, and the lights dim when you sit on your couch after 6PM.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because iOS developer Bastian Andelefski developed a prototype app to do exactly this last year. At the time, he said he needed someone to develop the hardware to make it work in your home. And that’s what the team behind Fluid is attempting to do, with Andelefksi on board as a technical advisor.

The system combines hardware — UWB enabled smart beacons and an optional smart hub — with an augmented-reality-powered app that leverages Apple’s ARKit framework to generate an AR map of your home and detect where your phone is and which smart device it’s likely pointing at. The system can make those guesses because those ultra-wideband beacons are mounted on your walls, and the phone can measure its distance to each. It’s essentially GPS for indoors, but with UWB beacons instead of satellites.

When you first set up the system you go to each device you want to add, log its location in the app, and connect it to a beacon. Each beacon has an 18- to 20-foot range to encompass any devices in that space.

Fluid says this creates a context-aware space that uses your iPhone to control the devices, either automatically or on demand. As you enter or exit each range, different automations trigger based on time of day and other conditions, and different device controls appear on your iPhone based on what you are closest to. You can also use the app to control devices in other rooms, not just those nearby.

The Fluid One app uses smart home beacons for point-and-click control and a smart hub for automations.
Image: Fluid

“Our system calculates the phone’s position in 3D space by simultaneously measuring its distance to multiple Smart Nodes on your room’s walls,” explains Fluid co-founder Rahul Prakash. “It then determines the orientation of the phone using the phone’s augmented reality engine (camera, compass, gyroscope and accelerometer). These measurements are compared against your preset smart device locations to infer what you are likely pointing at.”

Essentially turning your iPhone into a remote control, Fluid One replicates some of the functionality of the much-loved Logitech Harmony and over-priced Sevenhugs remotes. Now discontinued, these were physical remote controls for connected devices, including entertainment systems. Fluid One has an IR controller built into its hub hardware to help pick up where those other remotes left off. Incidentally, Sevenhugs was recently purchased by Qorov, a semiconductor company that manufactures UWB chips.

The Fluid One app can control all your compatible smart home devices in one app.
Image: Fluid

Fluid One launches on Kickstarter today with a $100,000 goal to begin production of the system. Early birds can pick up a Fluid One Lite kit for $249, which contains four smart nodes to provide the point-and-click ability. 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 — pricing 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 are using UWB, Fluid isn’t working with those phones yet. Shrey Sambhwani, Fluid co-founder, says the team is “waiting for a robust software interface” before supporting Android.

When (and if) Fluid launches — the ship date to 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 wide compatibility is thanks to the brains of the system being built on a Raspberry Pi smart hub running Home Assistant and HomeBridge software.

Ho also points out there are no cameras or microphones embedded in any of its hardware; additionally, the location data used to trigger automations is between your phone and the beacons, not sent to a server somewhere.

Fluid will also be Matter compatible, and Ho says the advent of the new smart home standard is one of the factors that made Fluid One possible. “If you have multiple devices, that’s when you see the value of our system, in being able to tie them together,” he says. “Matter is bringing unity to the smart home, so we’ll be able to tie even more devices together.”

Fluid One app uses battery-powered smart beacons you place around your home to identify the location of smart devices.

The downsides of Fluid are obvious, if not obviously fatal. It only works with iPhones, and you have to carry your phone with you around your house. When I tested RoomMe (a similar concept but using Bluetooth), that was my biggest gripe. I don’t want to have to walk around my house with my phone in my hand or even in my pocket.

If Fluid worked with an Apple Watch, that would be more compelling. Sambhwani says it’s not technically possible yet, but a future update from Apple could make it a reality.

In a perfect world, this sort of technology would be built into existing devices in our smart homes. The idea of sticking more single-use, white plastic hubs and beacons around my home is not appealing (and doubly so for $900). But if every Thread border router also sported a UWB chip, this would be a no-brainer, although potentially cost prohibitive.

The obvious solution is for Apple to adopt/develop this tech and turn its HomePod Minis into more multi-purpose beacons that leverage the power of the UWB hardware they already have — beyond just transferring music from your phone to the smart speaker. If Apple is interested in this idea, I know of a few smart students they should talk to.

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