Ambient computing has been the stuff of science fiction for decades. On “Star Trek,” for example, the crew of the Enterprise could say “Computer” into the air, followed by a command. An intelligent system would reply and attempt to obey, whether it was turning on the lights or executing the self-destruct sequence. Now—at least when it comes to the lights—fiction has become fact.
Interest in using voice to control smart homes has taken off in recent months. In June of last year, Apple announced HomeKit, software that will eventually enable users to command connected devices using the Siri voice interface. Amazon has begun limited sales of its cylindrical US $200 Amazon Echo, which can do things like provide weather reports or play specified music on voice command. While the Echo doesn’t yet integrate with smart-home devices, I’ll eat my hat if that functionality isn’t added sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.
But you don’t have to wait: You can try the $300 Ubi today. Like the Echo, the 10- by 10- by 3-centimeter Ubi can obey voice commands to do things like play music or send text messages on your behalf. But I already have pretty painless tools for those kinds of things. What I was really interested in were the smart-home capabilities: When you come through the door carrying grocery bags, that’s when you really want an alternative to fiddling with a smartphone.
Installing the Ubi was easy: I plugged it into the wall and set up an online account with its maker, the Unified Computer Intelligence Corp. (UCIC), in Toronto. This account allows you to configure the computer and connect it to your home’s Wi-Fi router.
The Ubi has built-in support for Smart Things home-automation devices and Nest thermostats, but to link my Ubi to the Philips Hue lightbulbs I have in my home, I had to use the IFTTT (If This Then That) website. This acts as a sort of glue between an extensive range of smart devices and online services. Support for both Ubi voice commands and my Hue lightbulbs has already been integrated into IFTTT, so creating a new command was simple: I used the Ubi “trigger” template to specify that my Ubi should pay attention to the words “Turn on lights.” Then I used the Hue “action” template to set this command to turn on all my apartment’s lightbulbs. Setting up a command to turn off the lights was a similar process.
To actually use a command, I first have to get the Ubi’s attention, which I do by saying “Okay, Ubi!” Then I can say, “Turn on lights,” and a couple of seconds later a voice confirms my command and the lights turn on. Usually.
Ubi uses Google’s voice recognition system, which is not as good as Apple’s. I sometimes have to repeat a command two or three times, and sometimes my Ubi gets confused about the difference between “turn lights on” and “turn lights off.”
There are other rough edges—such as a clunky online portal—as UCIC rolls out tweaks and upgrades with some frequency, suggesting that Ubi is still somewhat in beta mode. So why get an Ubi now, instead of waiting for Apple or Amazon to release what are sure to be polished products in the next year or two?
Because, in order to ensure a no-fuss consumer experience, those big-name products are likely to be pretty tightly nailed down. In contrast, UCIC is willing to let you get your hands dirty—for example, you can have an Ubi respond to incoming HTTP requests or send out its own. This means you have access to a vast range of online APIs (application program interfaces). The ability to quickly create your own voice commands is powerful and eliminates much of the guesswork that can sometimes come with Siri. You can also program triggers based on built-in sensors that monitor and log the levels of light, sound, air pressure, humidity, and temperature. You could have lights turn a warning red if the bottom drops out of the barometer, for example. After all, what’s the point in living in a science fiction world if it isn’t any fun?
This article originally appeared in print as “Give Your Home a “Star Trek” Vibe.”