This news was first published on Dec. 9 in my weekly Stacey on IoT newsletter.
Gosh, that’s lovely. These were the actual words I spoke when a friend texted me a picture of the Mui board, a smart home controller and display made by Japan’s Mui Labs. The wooden rectangle has touch-sensitive areas and LED lights that provide a means of displaying relevant information. It belongs in a home that embraces Scandinavian minimalism or the cluttered and homey cottage-core design aesthetic.
Mui Labs embraces a concept called calm design, which aims to snag a user’s attention smoothly and then fade back into the background. It reminds me of my original goals for the smart home, a place that provided ambient information about weather, time, and whatever else I might want to know. And in a year or so, thanks to Matter, I might have the chance to experience Mui’s design sensibilities in my own actual smart home.
Mui’s Munehiko Sato told me that the Matter smart home interoperability protocol finally hitting the market means that the company can take its design methodology and back-end software and apply it to more devices. For Mui, which was spun out of Japan’s NISSHA Corp. in 2019, this means that it no longer has to build custom integrations for each device partner it wants to support. It will still need to support deeper integration for certain tasks that aren’t currently supported by Matter, but jobs like unlocking a door or turning on a light are now possible.
Mui will release a Matter-compliant controller board next year, and is also looking to provide device makers with its software and cloud services to create calm technology experiences. Sato said the company might issue a small crowdfunding campaign to release the new board directly to consumers in the United States, but the primary focus is on signing partnership deals with technology providers that want the backend software and design talent to help them design device interfaces.
There are a variety of companies that provide various layers of smart home IP for third-party device makers. For example, Kraftful designs apps for smart home device companies while Tuya will do everything from the physical electronics all the way through to the app and cloud services. Ayla, meanwhile, provides cloud services and hardware reference designs for its clients. Mui would fall into a similar category, but its emphasis is on the calm design thinking. It also wants to work with device makers and home integrators.
This calm design aesthetic is a theme we’ll see more of in the coming year as the industry seeks to change the impression of smart home technology from gadget-oriented to warm and helpful. It comes on the heels of a shift from the sleek black or glossy white boxes of the early 2010s to rounded, fabric-covered devices that try to blend into homes a bit better. At CES next year, Samsung’s Jong-Hee Han, vice chairman, CEO, and head of Samsung’s DX (Device eXperience) division, will host a press conference dedicated to the theme of “bringing calm to our connected world.”
Mui’s contribution to calm design is a bit whimsical. For example, Sato showed off a timer app on the board that relied on the user drawing a line with their finger on the touch-sensitive panel to indicate how long the timer should run. The longer the line, the longer the timer runs. As the timer counts down, the line is gradually erased. For longer timers, a user can select a number of candles that correspond to 5-minute increments and watch them digitally burn down as the time passes.
The idea is to reduce the cognitive load associated with electronics use in the home, lessening the need for notifications and constant interactions with a device. For optimal success, I’d like to see Mui bring data in from existing sensors in the home to handle tasks such as turning on lights for the user when they enter a room. I’d be thrilled if companies would license that sort of experience from Mui, as it would reduce the programming I’d have to do to make technology work inside my home.
And I wouldn’t mind if alarm providers licensed the hardware Mui offers to help me eliminate the ugly alarm panels located by my front door. I can see the CEDIA professional installer market picking up on the MUI products and software, but I’d love to see it in homes whose residents aren’t able to spend an arm and leg on customized smart home tech.