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Silk Labs wants to string your smart home together with ‘Sense’

Homeowners have dreamed of smart, connected houses for more than half a century, but most of us still live in glorified wood boxes. Today, the biggest players in tech — including Samsung, Google, and Apple — are desperately trying to figure out how to make the smart home a reality. So far, they’re all failing.

The smart home is still the wild west for consumer tech.

That’s why Silk Labs’ Sense device … well, makes a lot of it. Initially described as “Dropcam meets Amazon Echo,” the scope of Silk’s vision extends far beyond cameras and voice recognition. This elegant little box may be the underdog that finally makes your home react to you.

A couple weeks back, the Silk Labs team, lead by CEO Andreas Gal — formerly the CTO of Mozilla — stopped by the DT offices in Manhattan to show us some early prototypes of the Sense, which hit Kickstarter on February 16. Here’s how it works.

The Sense

The Sense is a small box with a microphone, wide-angle camera, infrared sensor, accelerometer, and a status light. On its own, it can do a few smart tasks, but it’s also designed to connect with other smart-home products, like Sonos speakers, Nest thermostats, or Philips smart bulbs. But the goal isn’t just to act as a hub and string together a bunch of devices with a single app. Silk Labs wants Sense to organize your smart devices together, like a conductor would tame an orchestra, so that they can collectively anticipate and perform actions that you actually want done, in an intelligent way.

“We created this company because we have a vision of this much smarter home we live in that understands you, it sees you,” Gal told us. “It doesn’t just record you, it literally sees you … and tries to understand you, and who is in the house. Who’s coming home, what do they want, what do they like?”

For example, you can use Sense as a security camera, but instead of recording everything or sending you endless notification alerts, the Sense waits until it detects something you’ll actually want to know, and then records and notifies you. It “learns and adapts” as well, using facial, audio, and proximity recognition. Your dog walking in front of the camera won’t trigger a notification (unless you want it to), but maybe you want to know when your kids get home from school or if a stranger enters the house. The goal is to “virtually eliminate unnecessary notifications” by telling you precisely what you want to know about your home, when you need to know it. And by just doing things like turning lights on when you enter a room, and off when you leave it.

Sense to organize your smart devices together, like a conductor would tame an orchestra.

“Essentially, we are trying to build this future magical world where your devices become much much smarter,” Gal told us. “In my mind the trick is to come home and stuff just turns on. Maybe your favorite music plays and when you leave the house all this stuff turns off. It should learn what you like and its all about sensor data. But it’s also the ability to let you pull stuff from this sensor data.”

Though a few intuitive products, like the Amazon Echo, have made some strides in voice recognition, most smart products are a lot like what Gal describes: dumb.

“Today, you can buy a Philips Hue lightbulb,” he explained. “You install it and you come home — it’s dark — and to turn on the light you get out your smartphone, unlock it, go to the Philips app, launch it, find the right button, and click it. It’s like four to five clicks just to turn on a light switch. It’s easy to see the potential in there … but it’s not really a smart house yet.”

A smart house that’s also safe

If it all sounds a bit too magical, that’s because it is. For now, at least. The Silk Labs team uses a lot of great buzzwords like augmented intelligence, machine learning, advanced computer vision, and natural language processing. But it’s difficult to say how well the Sense will perform in a real environment. The team refused to show us the prototype of their app, and much of the product is still a mystery.

Silk Labs Sense
Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

Two buzzwords we do like: “local” and “encryption.” According to Gal, the Sense was engineered from the start to respect your privacy. All information passed from the device to your phone will be encrypted (end-to-end) and processed locally. Gal and his team think it’s very hard to get your data back or keep it secure once it hits the cloud, so they designed the Sense to act independently, even if you don’t have a great Internet connection.

Related: Android is losing its battle with fragmentation, and you’re paying the price

You can pair the Sense up with a phone, but to do it, you also have to physically tap your phone on the device, ensuring that you’re in the room and an authorized user, making remote hacking a far more difficult prospect.

All information passed from the device to your phone will be encrypted (end-to-end) and processed locally.

The Sense is able to encrypt communications and locally process things because, on the inside, it’s pretty much a smartphone. Gal and his team, many of whom worked with him at Mozilla designing FireFox OS before forming Silk Labs, are taking full advantage of the popularity of smartphones to put a lot of processing power in a relatively affordable package (the Sense costs a $225 pledge at the moment). It runs on 1GB of RAM, a 1.4GHz hexa-core processor, and has 8GB of internal storage. It even plugs into the wall with a Micro USB cord.

“If you were to look into the production version of this device, essentially what you’d find inside of it is pretty much a smartphone,” said Gal. “It’s a smartphone chipset, same kind of memory used in a smartphone. There’s even Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity you can find in smartphones.”

Though they had a prototype to show us what the Sense would look like, Gal and his team demoed the camera and connectivity functions of the Sense using a Nexus 4 smartphone, showing us how it could coordinate things like light levels and custom music choices depending on who was in a room.

No more ‘motherships’

Silk Labs hopes that you’ll like the ideas behind the Sense, but it also hopes you’ll gravitate to the unique design. It’s essentially a small wooden box (under a foot tall) with an antenna-like dish on the front. A 1080p HD camera and infrared sensor sit inside that arc, and you can adjust it up or down to adjust the angle of vision.

Gal believes many people will put it on a mantle or higher shelf, but really, it can go anywhere because of its low-key design.

Related: Smart appliances need to solve problems, not create them

“All the stuff you can buy right now, it feels like it’s an alien mothership that’s landing in your living room, like something you’d buy at Best Buy that’s metallic and plastic,” Gal told us. “[We want to] build stuff that responds to us and understands us — not some technology artifact. This is a device that’s different than anything else you’d put in your living room right now.”

Silk everywhere

The Sense is Silk Lab’s first product, and it will need $100,000 in funding to even become reality, but Gal believes it’s only the beginning.  It’s next objective may be to get the “Silk” platform that runs on the Sense in the hands of developers so they can create new apps and functionality for it. On top of that, Gal repeatedly mentioned how keen the company is to get its chipsets and software inside all the Internet of Things (IoT) devices and gadgets it isn’t making.

“This is the first product that we’re making,” said Gal. “If you look into the future, our vision really is that every single device that you buy, as long as its powered by a wall and has the ability to sustain computation, should embed a bunch of computation abilities, and all these devices start talking to each other and mesh together and make your experience much more interesting … Over time, in the next couple of years, we will essentially expand our platform to be able to build these kinds of devices with. So a future iteration of a Sonos, you might build this on our platform.”

In a perfect world, a large number of Internet of Things home devices would run its specs and connect to Silk Labs’ platform. Creating a hardware platform and app platform to connect the smart home will not be as easy as raising money for a Kickstarter campaign, but the smart home is still the wild west for consumer tech. Silk Labs is hoping that it’s struck gold.

You can learn more about the Sense at Silk Labs Kickstarter page.