We're perpetually bombarded with information, 24 hours a day. That's just our connected reality now, and there's very little hope of escaping it. On Valentine's Day, I penned an editorial on how I believe that the secret to distilling this information — the key to preventing humans from collapsing under the ever-growing weight of this data — has been right under our noses for years.
They're called "glanceable" devices, and Massachusetts-based Ambient Devices has been developing them for over a decade. The company spun out of a project at MIT's famed Media Lab with the goal of integrating data points into our lives in a natural, organic way. Ambient's path to building a real business has been an unusual one, producing oddities likes the Orb — a glass sphere capable of glowing different colors to indicate a temperature, stock price, or anything else the user can dream up — and the Umbrella, whose handle would glow when rain was in the forecast.
These days, Ambient has largely turned its attention to bigger customers, focusing on power companies who can deliver glanceable products to end users that help them trim their energy costs. But will we ever see something like the Umbrella again? We had a chance recently to chat with Ambient co-founder and CEO Pritesh Gandhi to hear about the company's past, present, and future.
"Our shift into the energy market was a very focused and very deliberate move."
Looking back over the last ten years of Ambient's development, would you say that the company was releasing products with the goal of basically throwing things out there to see what stuck, and then focusing on that market? Or was there a very measured shift from the consumer end of the market into dealing directly with energy companies who would then work with consumers?
As a startup, when we first started off in the first couple years, as I'm sure you're well aware we did throw out lots of different products and lots of different ideas to see where the market might be. However, our shift into the energy market was a very focused and very deliberate move to say, well, we see the good in this particular market. We see the potential this has in terms of both saving money and also providing a real benefit to a very broad market. And we see the need on the consumer side to really have a very clear depiction of this information, because as I'm sure you're familiar with, if you go to a utility website, I don't know which market you're in...
Chicago. So if you go to your utility's website — either ComEd or Ameren — you'll see that rates are displayed, but in a very complex manner. I mean, these bills and the way that these rates are displayed are incredibly frustrating for the end user. And most end users don't even look at their detailed bill... all they look at is that top price box to see how much they owe that month, and they pay it off, or they get the bill online and they just pay it off. So we're really providing this sort of transparency to the user, which has not been done in the market before.
What's interesting to me is that even today, even with these energy-focused products, it seems like there are many ways these devices could be repurposed for a variety of different metrics and data points that are ever-present in consumers' lives. It has the potential to be more than just an energy product. So I'm wondering, would Ambient consider selling directly to consumers again, or is it becoming more of a situation where you want to work with third parties who would then resell products? I know that you sell modules for connecting to the Ambient cloud, but are you looking to reenter the consumer market at some point?
Absolutely. I mean, in theory, we actually haven't really exited the consumer market because we still have partnerships with all our retail partners who we've licensed our technology to, and our manufacturing partners. So we have a very strong realtionship with various different retailers ranging from Best Buy to Brookstone to RadioShack, and we will continue to perhaps tap that space. And in fact, it becomes one of the key appeal points for us when we meet with a utility, because they say "oh, well, you already know how to deal with customers, you already have one and a half million units in the marketplace, so you understand what it means to have a consumer solution and what comes along with that." You know, having customer support, having the warranty issues, and dealing with distribution, dealing with packaging, doing the drop testing and all these other things that come along with having a product that has to ship out in a box to an end user. So it's an asset that we continue to hope to leverage.
I think ultimately what ends up happening with a device like this, we're in pilots with some utilities right now, but utilities aren't going to get the blanket approval so say, go ahead and buy two and a half million for all your customers in the Chicago area. What's going to happen is something to similar to what happened in the CFL market, where eventually the public utility commission said, well, we'll approve a rebate for a certain amount and then have the manufacturers sell this at retail. So you can go to a Home Depot or a Lowe's today, and you can buy a CFL bulb that's probably on rebate and the rebate is being provided by ComEd.
So I think that is inevitably the direction where something like this will go. So it certainly helps to have had the experience and the understanding of what it means to be a part distributor.
I think back to products like the original Orb and the Dashboard, and even the Umbrella. I feel like those were very pure expressions of the concept that came out of the Media Lab.
They were extremely simple devices that... unless you knew what they were, you didn't necessarily even know that they were trying to convey information. And that has evolved into these more traditional-looking dashboards with LCD displays, so on, so forth. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution, and what drove it? Do you think that there's still a place for those more pure concepts?
Yeah, I think absolutely there is a place for these more pure concepts. If you look at some of the stuff that we're doing now, you'll see that we're trying to have feet in both worlds a little bit at this point. I think, we strongly believe that the sort of "single pixelness" of the Orb is what really drove the consumer behavior change in some of the pilots we've conducted over the last several years in the utility space. The simplicity, the lack of need for all this information that gets constantly bombarded at you. And today, there are many methods of getting that information.
Look at my home alone, we now have two iPads, three computers, two smartphones, and a digital picture frame. And it's just me, my wife, and my two kids under the age of five! We have that many interfaces for information to come to us. So there's definitely many venues for that drilldown data. So we made a little bit of a compromise on allowing drilldown to show up on the device, because it's now available from a standpoint of the network that's broadcasting it over the ZigBee network. So having consumption data there, I think in early customer studies we find that provides the user that one additional layer of drilldown data that they may be looking for before they choose what to do. And I think there is some strong relevance to being situational — having data at the right place.
And I talk about that again with some of our weather devices, the ones that we sold so well and have a continued success with. You know, it looks like a smart Post-It note. It's got an LCD screen that shows you the five-day weather forecast, and we have that device in our home in our closet. It's the right information at the right place. It tells me just enough as to what I need to know, but I don't have to process everything else that comes along with going to a web page or going onto my smartphone to look at that information. I mean, it's available on my smartphone, but I get distracted every time I'm on my phone because there's probably always an email waiting for me, or a text waiting for me there. So having it be presented simply, and being in a situation that I can actually do something about it is really where we see it. So we're willing to add that layer of drilldown if it aids in the decision-making process to really make an impact on consumer behavior.
"You know, it looks like a smart Post-It note."
And a related question, you talk about smartphones. Another company that I've followed pretty closely over the past several years is Chumby, which I think actually has a number of similarities to what Ambient is trying to do. It's all about glanceable information and configurability of that glanceable information. They have kind of embraced, or at least attempted to embrace, the smartphone revolution by rolling out an Android-based Chumby product that can show all of that same information on a device like the Chumby 8 or the Chumby One. And I'm wondering how, if at all, this smartphone takeover has affected Ambient's strategy?
It's certainly affected our strategy on the consumer side. We heard from a lot of retail partners that one of the issues with our device was that it wasn't rich enough, it didn't give you the sun in its glowing yellow glory. Or it didn't give you the raindrops with accurate reflection, it was just very simple sketches on an LCD. And I think from a retail buyer standpoint, if you're a retail buyer and you see the entire industry moving to that direction, you want to have that too. And so we certainly did see an impact on sales as the resolution on screens became richer on smartphones.
"Having that effortless access to information is where we try to really stand out."
However, I think that from a consumer standpoint, when we talked to customers, there is a real appreciation for the simplicity of the user experience associated with our devices. So while smartphones are certainly becoming easier and easier to use and have significantly more channels and apps available to interact with, I think that there is still that additional hurdle of saying, well, I've got to find that damn app. I'm looking at my phone right now, and I probably have some 280 apps downloaded here. If I want to find that one app that I like, it might take me about three minutes to find it. And sort of having that effortless access to information is where we try to really stand out.
Another related question, how, if at all, has the rapid change and growth in wireless networks affected what you do and how you do it? I know that you mentioned ZigBee earlier. Of course, the original Orb was running on a pager network, right?
That's correct, yes. And many of our current devices still do run on that network, which is surprisingly still around! It's not going anywhere, because it's being used by first responders and it's being used by the government in many of their applications, so it's a very robust network.
"We will try to remain true to the affordable vision and keep the costs of these devices as low as possible."
So is that something that you don't see changing for you? That's the network that you're going to continue to use?
Well, we adopted the ZigBee network primarily because of the fact that it is the network of choice for many of these utilities as they're rolling out their smart grid initiatives. So it made sense for us to go down that path. We've also experimented with some early prototyping on devices using Wi-Fi. GSM as well. So we've sort of looked at other opportunities, and for us, the question comes down to a few things. One is the ease of use — how easy is it for a user to set up the device and get it up and going? And the other, which I think is more important, is the affordability. For a dedicated device, a dedicated information device like ours, you want to have a model that allows you to get it down to under the $50 to $100 price point, and that's really what we're trying to shoot for. And once you start layering on the GSM network and you have to put an Android OS onto it, and all these different things start adding up and it becomes a much more expensive, much more complex device. Even though it may be as simple as an Orb from its overall use case, when you've got the initial layers of all the technology complexity to it, it becomes incredibly onerous from a bill of materials standpoint. So we will try to remain true to the affordable vision and keep the costs of these devices as low as possible.
We've seen a resurgence in interest in smart home technology in the past few months; Nest has gotten a ton of press, of course. Crestron did some interesting things at CES this year that might finally push them into the consumer market. Do you see that as an opportunity for you to do some interesting things? Can you piggyback on that resurgence to do some interesting things that you aren't necessarily doing right now?
You know, I may be perhaps a little bit of a luddite in those terms, because while I appreciate the vision of having this sort of connected home and having the smart home that will now eventually have my thermostat talk to my dishwasher, and my dishwasher talk to my fridge, I'm also a realist in terms of looking at where the market is. We have people who are in our office whose parents haven't changed their fridges in 35 years. And when you look at that installed base of the number of consumers and the infrastructure that's going to be required to really make that vision of the smart, connected home real, I think that the time frame is significantly longer than many of these companies anticipate.
It's one of those things that requires such a large sea change, that it's a little bit difficult to me to see how a company like Ambient can survive. So we believe very much in the fact that if we can just give consumers the ability to have that information and have the transparency to the data, consumers are smart enough to figure out what to do with it. Once it's in their environment, we've seen and we continue to see that it does allow them to make the right choice.
"We have an Orb at home that actually tells me the status of our call center..."
Do you personally still use any of the old-school Ambient devices, or do you have any lying around the office? The Dashboards, the Orb, the Umbrellas?
We have every one of them lying around the office, and we have many of them at home that are around the house. We have an Orb at home that actually tells me the status of our call center, how many email tickets and calls are coming in at home. So if I'm at home and I see the email tickets piling up, I might log in and say, "okay, what's going on?" The interesting thing is that my kids now — I mentioned to you, they're under five — they understand what these devices mean, too. [Laughter.]
I think that's one of the beauties of glanceable of information, at least in its purest form, is that it's very easy to understand right? It's the least complex form of information intake imaginable. The elegance of it has always been a big appeal I think.
What's next for Ambient? Now that you've started penetrating the energy market, what's on the roadmap?
Well, we see that the energy market actually has a very long runway for us. There's a tremendous amount of interest that we've received since we've embarked on this path from both US utilities as well as utilities overseas. I think that the vision of this sort of very simple glanceable type of device certainly resonates with many markets, and some of the Asian and European markets in particular see some interest there. Embracing ZigBee allows us to go overseas as well. To date, all products have only been sold here in the US, so we now have an opportunity to perhaps interest some international markets.
We continue to explore other avenues. Some of the other avenues that have come to us — they're sort of adjacent to the electric utility space — have been in the water management and the data dashboarding space as well. As you're probably aware, out west, there's a big water issue, and some of the big municipalities and towns on the west coast have come to us and said, well, is there any way we could use this technology to help inform consumers around the behavior change required to better manage that problem?
And so that's one area. Another area we've seen some interest from — and it's a little bit bigger fish to fry — is in the medical space. As the population ages more and more, building these very simple intuitive displays that allow people to manage their information and the complexity of data that's available in this space, in the medical space, in the healthcare space. You know, what should I do with all this data that's available about my weight, about my blood pressure, how do I act? Can I eat that apple or not? The Orb will let me know, should I have that next Pop-Tart or not?
Find Ambient on the web at ambientdevices.com.