Imagine using a single app to control everything in your smart home. I don’t mean the apps of today which show your devices in groups or rooms. I’m talking about a context-aware interface that intelligently surfaces a specific device, and its controls when you point your phone at it. That’s the future of the smart home and one iOS developer is using ultrawideband (UWB) technology to demonstrate it.
I saw a demonstration of this future in Bastian Andelefski’s prototype application called Point (as in point and click). Andelefski creates iOS applications and he’s worked on a smart remote like this since 2015. Unfortunately, indoor device location technology wasn’t up to snuff back then. It’s only been recently that wireless radio tech such as UWB and wireless sensing solutions have provided the information needs for a contextually aware smart home experience.
Essentially, using the UWB chip in an iPhone along with Apple’s ARKit framework for augmented reality, Andelefski’s app shows where each device is. Technically, it only shows the area where he places certain devices. That’s because most connected devices in the home don’t have a UWB radio. If they did, his app could identify the specific device and not just the expected location.
Andelefski’s software then acts like an AirTag finder of sorts, automatically identifying where a smart device is as he points his iPhone around a room. And once the app “sees” a device, the interface changes to match the capabilities of that device.
If it sees connected colored lights, for example, the app shows controls relevant to them: on, off, a color palette, etc… Likewise, if you point your phone at a thermostat, you’ll see an interface to change the temperature or turn the heat on.
To truly appreciate this experience, take a look at this video where Andelefski demonstrates his prototype.
The first thing I noticed is how much easier this type of smart home experience is. You point your phone at a device and see only what you need to see.
Why clutter up a phone display with bunches of connected devices when you can simply show the specific one you want? And why have that extra tap to choose a device to view its specific capabilities and options? Adding devices to the Point prototype app is easy too, which he shows off in the video.
So, why don’t we have this smart home interface today? It comes down to timing.
We’re just getting started with the mainstream adoption of the technologies needed to make this all work. UWB is in all new iPhones and some Android handsets, but it’s still regarded as a feature for the high-end of the market. And although I’m sure there’s one or two out there, I’m not aware of any bulbs, cameras, locks, or other connected devices that have a UWB radio in them. That’s why Andelefski is limited to creating small areas around his home for Point; his app controls devices associated with those areas.
Another limitation is from the platform providers as well. As it stands now, Andelefski says he can’t use the UWB chip in Apple’s smart speakers because Apple doesn’t yet allow third parties to do so. It’s possible that will change in the future, although even then, Apple will surely maintain rigid control over what developers can and can’t do with an in-device UWB radio.
And then there’s the added cost if hardware makers even wanted to integrate a UWB chip inside their devices. Apple’s AirTag is a prime example of this at $30 per tag; the most expensive component is surely the UWB and Bluetooth radios inside.
While UWB is the solution Andelefski chose, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the only future option. A less expensive approach would use Bluetooth for device location. In theory, it would provide a similar experience as the range of modern Bluetooth radios can easily handle device location from across a room. Precision data from Bluetooth may not be quite as good, but close enough works in this case.
No matter how this experience could be architected, I want it. I’m tired of scrolling through rooms, groups, and lists of devices to control my smart home from my phone and watch. It’s why I turn to voice control in many cases, even when it’s not an ideal situation or when my smart speaker doesn’t quite understand my commands. This approach could even enable scenes or routines when you walk into a room; like the iPhone, my Apple Watch has a UWB chip inside that could be used to determine my location with respect to my connected devices.
It’s time to elevate smart home control with a more intuitive and contextual experience. Something like the Point prototype combined with next-generation wireless technologies could deliver it.