- ‘If everyone’s trying to do it, there must be something there’
- Machine learning finds out user preferences and what is comfortable
IN the hot and humid climate of most of Asia, the air-conditioner has become almost a necessity, but given today’s environmental concerns, one would need to juggle between comfort and energy-savings.
This is a problem that Hong Kong-based Ambi Labs founder and chief executive officer Julian Lee set out to tackle.
“In the summer in Hong Kong, it is too hot to leave your dog at home without the air-conditioner on, but leaving it on the whole day feels like a waste of energy, especially when it’s not needed,” he tells Digital News Asia (DNA) in Singapore.
“That’s when I thought: Can I make a controller or timer to switch it on and off, or check on conditions?” he adds.
As a founding member of Dim Sum Labs, a Hong Kong ‘hackerspace,’ Lee trawled hacker and maker forums around the world, and found out that other people were trying to make the same thing.
“If everyone’s trying to do it, there must be something there,” he says. “There’s when we decided to make a remote control with a few smart features.”
Eschewing the remote
Ambi Labs first embarked on user research, according to Lee (pic above) – not surprising, given his background as a strategy consultant.
“To me it is always about: Is there a need?” he says. “We found out that a remote control alone was not that interesting.
“People were telling us about SMS-controlled air-conditioners from the 1990s – the technology has existed for a while,” he adds.
While there seemed to be little interest in home automation, the people he surveyed still complained about their air-conditioners being too hot or too cold, according to Lee.
“Everyone complained that when they go to bed at a comfortable temperature, they always wake up too cold.
“These are the sort of the problems that led us to think about improving the control system of air-conditioners,” he says.
While ‘comfortable’ might be subjective, temperature is not the only factor, according to Lee, adding that humidity, sunlight and the weather all play a part.
“We had an early hire who is a specialist in machine learning, and who helped us understand the main value proposition of our device,” he says.
Learn thy ways, machine
These efforts resulted in the Ambi Climate, a device that allows users to control their air-conditioners, and also learns what is comfortable to that particular user. It can also be controlled via their Android devices or iPhones.
READ ALSO: Ambi Climate smartens up your air-conditioning
“The main feature is the comfort mode: Instead of setting a temperature, you tell our system if you are hot, cold or comfortable,” Lee says.
“Using machine learning, we understand the factors that make it comfortable – [that is], how much humidity and temperature affect you,” he adds.
Ambi Climate looks at factors such as humidity, sunlight, temperature, motion levels in the room, and the weather outside.
The device is designed as a table-top device for a reason, according to Lee.
“We want this placed as close to you as possible … because we want to measure the environment you are experiencing,” he says.
“The closer it is to where you are in the room, the better the results will be,” he adds.
Ambi Climate got its life via Kickstarter, which saw Ambi Labs successfully raising US$114,892. Having first focused on fulfilling deliveries to its Kickstarter backers, the company launched the device in Singapore this month, and it is available in Challenger stores now.
The Singapore launch will test the market, and if successful, it will be rolled out to other markets, says Lee.
“In total, we have shipped 800 units to over 600 households in 37 countries,” he adds.
Plans and funding
Meanwhile, Ambi Labs will be concentrating on an upgrade path for the device, according to Lee.
“We have designed into our system an upgrade path – we have expansion ports on the system.
“We will be launching additional modules and sensors, and not just for the sake of doing things – all the upgrades will further improve your comfort,” he says.
While the startup was funded via a ‘family and friends’ round, Lee says it is looking to secure a late seed round.
Although he would not disclose to DNA the amount it is seeking, a VentureBeat article pegged the amount at US$2 million.
There is a lot of interest for the product all over the world, Lee declares, but the challenge is picking the right opportunity.
“It’s much more about the compatibility support, and working with the right distributor.
“We want to grow and be careful about the way we brand it – our product needs some end-user education.
“We have a lot of opportunities, so we need to cherry-pick the ones that are right for us,” he adds.
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