Neurio fills a major gap in home automation and smart homes [Kickstarter]

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We had the chance to speak in-depth with Neurio prior to their launch on Kickstarter and we’re impressed with what we heard.

Neurio is a new kind of technology that will fill a major gap in home automation and smart homes. It is not just a home energy monitor. While it uses a similar breaker panel-based power sensor, Neurio and its algorithms are designed to monitors events and learn about behaviors in the household. This intelligence is made available to other devices and services.

Why is that useful? Simply put, Neurio exposes a data feed of activity information for the electrical devices you already have, so you can use those signals as inputs to home automation. Examples: turn on the mood lights when the hot tub turns on, alert your smartphone when the laundry is finished, etc. And this requires no integration with those devices — just one sensor on your breaker panel and their software.

They are approaching the home automation / smart home / sensors-in-the-home (or whatever you want to call it) new market in the right way.

1) Useful data
Neurio monitors your home’s electricity to figure out what your appliances are up to – without the need to install sensors on every device. Energy consumption is useful data for saving money on electrical bills, but more than that, it reveals insights into problems and usage patterns and is data that can be wired up as triggers for home automation scenarios.

2) Open data / hackable interfaces
Neurio does a great job in this regard with out-of-the-box support open data and hacking. It’s an open platform with a public API so makers and hackers can extend it any way they like. They can connect it Raspberry Pie, Arduino, 3rd party web services, or their own applications. They can pull data from Neurio Cloud or directly from Neurio Sensor, and crunch the numbers in Matlab, Python, Java, etc.

They even provide an open-source cloud for those who need data hosting. They plan to integrate with services like IFTTT, Spark Core and Smart Things, so their users don’t have to write code to start using Neurio’s automation capabilities.

There are a lot of home automation and sensor products both old and new, and a myriad of standards. Many vendors don’t have interfaces at all — let along open designs. Given the pace of innovation, it would be crazy to install anything that had a closed-data design. The winners in this space will be the providers that do the best job of making their wares compatible and useful with as many competing platforms and standards as possible.

No one house, it’s environment or it’s owner’s budget is the same as another, so it’s a hodge-podge of technologies that’s going to be needed to fit any one home.

3) Ease of install & setup — and no battery babysitting
Neurio is a WiFi-enabled power monitor that installs directly into your breaker panel. It draws its power from there and communicates (via your home Wifi) to a cloud service. You control it via a smartphone app. It senses what’s going on by listening to analog data and electrical signals coming off your home’s power grid. Key point: nothing to install around the home and no batteries to babysit.

Here’s what the team had to say about their work and how they got started.

Q: Why is electricity monitoring interesting? What are the insights that people can gain from it?

A: As we worked on our energy products, we noticed very interesting things in the data. Our electricity monitor is the ultimate sensor, right at the center of the home electronics (i.e., the breaker panel), sensing every device without expensive sensors in every socket. We discovered that our system can be a great fit for HA applications as it can understand user behavior and create the intelligence that’s missing in HA systems today.

Moreover, we always wished to make our products available to public without a big price tag or the need for utility involvement. Current energy management products often use Zigbee, driving up prices, or rely on smart meters, creating a highly fragmented market. Neurio is an inexpensive solution for the whole market.

And last but not least, we want to make an open system to create a community that helps bring all these ideas to life. We truly believe Neurio opens up new possibilities to change how we interact with our homes, and we simply don’t have the manpower to do it all.

Q: what facilities will you offer for people who want to install your system but then primarily interact with the data programmatically?

A: Absolutely. Our cloud will have open REST API’s for anyone to use, whether they just like to retrieve their historic data or to build cool widgets on top. For instance, I’d love to see someone make a Gmail widget so I can see my home’s status inside my mailbox!

Neurio users could also use REST API’s to talk directly to the Neurio Sensor. We’d be including sample wrappers for Matlab and Python so everyone can get up and running quickly. And we are also looking into open sourcing our server code so anyone could host their own system if they wish. As I said, making this open and enabling the creative/maker community is a big part of this project.

Q: Please tell us about the founders

A: Jon and I were the founding members of the UBC Thunderbird Robotics. It started off with the DARPA Grand Challenge competition for autonomous full-size vehicles, for which we were the only Canadian entry and one of the few ran by undergraduate volunteers. We even had a really fun Discovery channel segment about us, in which our robo-Jeep Cherokee ran away! We later participated in the Autonomous Racing competitions for small-scale cars. Last I checked Thunderbird Robotics was still the largest robotics group at UBC, encompassing teams for electric car, robo soccer, and NASA mining excavation competitions. After graduating, Jon and I continued to mentor the new team leaders.

Q: It seems your system can collect data about usage, but for HA you need to control (on/off, etc) things as well…how does your system do this? How do you integrate the data feeds with other systems that do this?

The way I see it, there is already plenty of good control products out there, and many people have already invested in them (WeMo and HUE lights, SmartThings, Spark Core derivatives, etc.). As long as these systems provide open API’s, we (or the community) can integrate Neurio with them.

With the exception of recent products like Nest, most HA products lack any intelligence. And without intelligence, they can quickly turn into a novelty item. I think Nest was perhaps one of the first major successes in HA because it actually made life easier, not more complicated. And it didn’t require breaking the bank.

I envision Neurio adding the learning aspect to all other ordinary devices, just like what Nest did for thermostats. All HA-connected devices in the home can learn from Neurio when the user leaves home, or go to bed, or wake up. The coffee maker could turn on 10 minutes before you wake up, because Neurio could learn what time you typically get up on workdays or weekends, and trigger the coffee maker.

To save energy or to create event-based behaviors in current HA systems, you need to put smart sensors on doors and plugs and everywhere else. But Neurio can tell when you’re home the moment you turn on the first light. This removes the need for an expensive HA installation. And if the intention is to save energy, Neurio can identify where to put a few smart plugs to get best bang for your buck, instead of having to blanket the entire home with plugs without knowing how much each one could save you.

Q: Any plans to push the data to the cloud so your customers can start to compare their energy usage with others (in aggregate)? Related: any plans to use the cloud data to publish “consumer reports” type data about the true energy efficiency of various appliances? Will these sorts of applications be possible in the future?

The social applications are definitely on our radar, though it won’t be available upon initial launch. This requires some regional data to accumulate first so comparisons can be made. We have already designed our UI and backend to support these features.

As for the “consumer reports” type of data, it’s a great idea! I think what we’re really doing here is democratizing the energy data, in a high quality kind of way, and giving people completely free access to it. Once the data is out there, providing aggregate reports like that would certainly be possible.

Q: What’s the underlying technology or mechanism that’s used to infer data from the breaker panel? how does that work?

Q: We have current transformers (CT’s) monitoring the main lines in the breaker panel, and the device is wired up to the panel in a way to also draw power from it (hence no need for batteries or on-going maintenance once the device is installed). This setup also has the advantage of enabling us to monitor voltage, which increases overall accuracy. The captured data are then transmitted to the cloud via Wifi.

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