Fluid One: Turning iPhone into A Magic Wand

Fluid One uses Apple’s ultra-wideband chip to give you point-and-click control of intelligent devices. What the smart home needs, they say, is an intuitive control interface and automation that fires off established on where you are in your home.

One app to rule it all. And they’re not wrong. The smart home has an interface problem, and six undergrads from Duke think they’ve solved it with a Raspberry Pi and Apple’s U1 chip.

They believe most of today’s methods for controlling intelligent devices — voice control, fiddly apps with multiple menus, motion sensors — are cumbersome and sometimes frustrating.

Fluid One is their solution. An intelligent home app that leverages ultra-wideband technology in Apple’s iPhones, Fluid can control connected lighting, locks, cameras, thermostats, and more in two ways: a point-and-click control interface and location-based automation.

Just point your iPhone at an intelligent light bulb, and the proper controls automatically appear to brighten, dim, change color or turn the light on or off. Or, flick your phone up or down to control a device. No touch required. “It’s like the HomePod Mini / iPhone handoff but for any compatible device,” Tim Ho, one of the six co-founders of Fluid, told.

The app can also work in the background to trigger intelligent home automation based on your phone’s location as you move around. For example, set the lights in a hallway to switch on as you walk through and off as you leave. Or, have the TV turn on, the thermostat adjusts, and the lights dim when you sit on your couch after 6 PM.

If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because iOS developer Bastian Andelefski developed a prototype app to do this last year. At the time, he said he needed someone to create the hardware to make it work in your home. And that’s what the team behind Fluid is attempting to do, with Andelefksi on board as a technical advisor.

The system combines hardware — UWB-enabled brilliant beacons and an optional smart hub — with an augmented-reality-powered app. It has leveraged Apple’s ARKit framework to generate an AR map of your home and detect your phone and which smart device it’s likely pointing at. The system can make those guesses because those ultra-wideband beacons are mounted on your walls, and the phone can measure its distance to each. So it’s essentially GPS for indoors, but with UWB beacons instead of satellites.

When you initially establish the system, you go to each device you want to add, log its location in the app, and connect it to a beacon. Each beacon has an 18- to 20-foot range to encompass any devices in that space.

Fluid says this creates a context-aware space that uses your iPhone to control the devices automatically or on demand. For example, as you enter or exit each range, different automation triggers based on time of day and other conditions and additional device controls appear on your iPhone based on what you are closest to. You can also employ the app to control devices in different rooms, not just those nearby.

“Our system calculates the phone’s position in 3D space by measuring its distance to multiple Smart Nodes on your room’s walls,” explains Fluid co-founder Rahul Prakash. “It then determines the phone’s orientation using its augmented reality engine (camera, compass, gyroscope, and accelerometer). Finally, these measurements are compared against your preset smart device locations to infer what you are likely pointing at.”

Essentially turning your iPhone into a remote control, Fluid One replicates some of the functionality of the much-loved Logitech Harmony and over-priced Sevenhugs remotes. These were discontinued physical remote controls for connected devices, including entertainment systems. Fluid One has an IR controller built into its hub hardware to help pick up where those other remotes left off. Incidentally, Sevenhugs was recently purchased by Qorov, a semiconductor company that manufactures UWB chips.

When the product officially launches — Fluid is targeting early 2024 for general release — pricing will be $399 to $899.

The system only works with an iPhone 11 or newer, and while other phone manufacturers, including Samsung and Google, are using UWB, Fluid isn’t working with those phones yet. Shrey Sambhwani, the Fluid co-founder, says the team is “waiting for a robust software interface” before supporting Android.

When Fluid launches and the company has a working prototype — the system should be compatible with a long list of intelligent home devices and ecosystems.

These include Apple HomeKit, Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Samsung SmartThings, Zigbee and Z-Wave devices, Ring, Nest, Philips Hue, Ecobee, Lutron, Nanoleaf, iRobot, Sonos, and many more. This broad compatibility is thanks to the brains of the system being built on a Raspberry Pi smart hub running Home Assistant and HomeBridge software.

No cameras or microphones are embedded in any hardware; additionally, the location data used to trigger automation is between your phone and the beacons, not sent to a server somewhere.

Fluid will also be Matter compatible, and Ho says the advent of the new intelligent home standard is one of the factors that made Fluid One possible. “If you have multiple devices, that’s when you see the value of our system, in being able to tie them together,” he says. “Matter is bringing unity to the smart home, so we’ll be able to tie even more devices together.”

Fluid One app uses battery-powered bright beacons you place around your home to identify the location of smart devices. Unfortunately, the downsides of Fluid are apparent, if not fatal. First, it only works with iPhones, and you must carry your phone around your house.

If Fluid worked with an Apple Watch, that would be more compelling. Sambhwani says it’s not technically possible yet, but a future update from Apple could make it a reality. In a perfect world, this sort of technology would be built into existing devices in our smart homes. The idea of sticking more single-use, white plastic hubs and beacons around your home is not appealing. But if every Thread border router also sported a UWB chip, this would be a no-brainer, although potentially cost prohibitive.

The obvious solution is for Apple to adopt/develop this tech and turn its HomePod Minis into more multi-purpose beacons that leverage the power of the UWB hardware they already have — beyond just transferring music from your phone to the smart speaker.