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UEI Pitches Its Smart Home Framework as Service Opportunity for Utilities

Universal Electronics Inc.’s goal in the connected home is to “help brands deliver managed services better and directly to the end users,” Arsham Hatambeiki, senior vice president-product and technology, told a virtual Parks conference last week. UEI is porting its QuickSet Cloud and voice assistant technologies, primarily used in the MVPD space for set-top boxes and remote controls, to the smart home space, announcing first steps last month (see 2102120042) through a smart thermostat. More connected products are due later this year. “We make finished products and software and services that integrate with existing [products],” Hatambeiki told the webinar, saying UEI onboards intelligence that can be put into HVAC equipment and appliances.

Hatambeiki described UEI’s voice technology as a “white label assistant” used to simplify user interaction. “We try to bring interoperability with devices through software and hardware devices and sensing and control capabilities," he said, with the goal of helping brands deliver managed services better and directly to end users.

Parks moderator Patrice Samuels said utilities are looking to add services for recurring monthly revenue that leverage capabilities of HVAC systems, which have built-in capability for alerts. Smart thermostat adoption has been stuck at about 11% for a few years, and smart thermostats are an opportunity to grow the market. Samuels noted that when Nest thermostats first became available, they led the smart home device market, due to efforts by utilities to integrate them with their programs. Now, “there’s a potential for utilities to boost sales of smart thermostats” while helping to retain stability of the electrical grid through demand-response management.

Consumers have shown interest in paying for services tied to smart thermostats, Samuels said. Fifty-six percent of smart thermostat owners said they would spend $10 a month for a service that monitors their HVAC system, notifies them of any problems and gives maintenance advice, said a Parks survey. The number rose to 67% for a $5 monthly service fee. Of the 22% of households that own or intend to buy a smart thermostat, HVAC was among the top three reasons for purchase, she said.

UEI looks at the connected device space opportunity in terms of relationships, said Hatambeiki. “It evolves from a mechanical device to an ongoing promise and relationship with an end user,” he said. The relationship can move “across screens and out of the home,” while opening new avenues for monetization services, he said. For that to happen, integration has to be part of product planning at the beginning: “If you intend to scale a service, the support needs to be built in from day zero from the original design, not as an afterthought.”

Beyond that, products need to have the ability for onboarding and interoperability on an ongoing basis, said Hatambeiki. A product’s framework has to be “completely redone” to allow monitoring, prediction and fulfillment for any fixes that may be needed in the future, he said.

UEI sees a thermostat as a “dashboard” that functions as a climate controller. It has a display that communicates with other devices, so it can be the face of a service offering platform. For that to happen, “simplicity is step one." A simple view can “demystify the concept of pattern recognitions and learning thermostats.” Providers have to explain in basic terms how a smart thermostat delivers comfort and saves energy, he said.

UEI’s QuickSet cloud infrastructure includes interoperability as a service, said Hatambeiki. The company maintains interoperability with new connected devices “in a way that no device will be left behind." It has taken that approach on the latest generation of smart TVs with major brands, he said. “We look at it as table stakes to be able to innovate in a home framework against a generalist approach,” he said. “If you were to forego any direct interoperability between the brands, and always limit yourself to going through a third party, then your hands will be tied in doing home-scale innovation.”

On why smart home hasn’t taken off among mainstream consumers, Hatambeiki cited the need for better integration to create a complete experience. In the case of an HVAC OEM, “if the only piece we do control is the technology in the central unit -- you do not control the smart vents, shades, the interface, the actual thermostat that goes on the wall -- then much will not be possible,” he said.

Hatambeiki gave the example of the home entertainment market where there was once a lot of innovation in the aftermarket remote control segment. Smart remote control companies came out with a “great user experience, but they were detached from the actual entertainment experience on the big screen,” he said. That changed when entertainment systems became smart themselves and were voice-enabled, he said. Now, most connected TVs are “smart home dashboards, and the boundaries between smart home and entertainment started fading.” The aftermarket remote business “kind of went away just because the experience you’d get in a fully integrated system is always better,” said Hatambeiki. “You can always solve the problems from within the system much better than if you were on the outside.”

On whether UEI’s framework could be a pipe for two-way communications, Hatambeiki said technically it’s possible but for privacy and security reasons, companies would have to have valid commercial relationships between brands for access to private data such as air quality or occupancy sensor metrics.

Having first-rate digital support is critical for smart home providers because anything else is “problematic to scale,” said Hatambeiki. “No user really likes to sit on the phone for five minutes,” which means they may forego a feature and “live with the pain for a while.” On-device support is important because once consumers leave a device and look for help elsewhere, "you effectively are competing with general web services, with different forums that can’t guide them through your own proven steps.” If done right, support can end up generating revenue “and not be a cost basis,” he said.

Eventually, UEI believes, every device that enters the home will be smart: “You won’t even call it smart; you’ll call it expected.” Within such an environment, any utility company will be able to promote its services within its own footprint, he said.