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Startup Report

Silk Labs Wants To Free The Smart Home From Smartphones And The Cloud

This startup is building an Internet of Things operating system to help make smart devices...smart.

Silk Labs' Sense, a smart-home device designed to look good out in the open

[Photos: courtesy of Silk Labs]

Andreas Gal is describing to me what it's like to turn on a Wi-Fi-enabled light using your phone, and he's making it sound like a major step backwards rather than the way of the future.

"You have to fumble out your smartphone and turn it on and type in your PIN code and launch an app," he says. "We just made your experience four steps worse than flipping a light switch next to you."

Gal's startup, Silk Labs, is building an operating system—also called Silk—which is designed to push more computational smarts into the gizmos inside a home, thereby making them less reliant on smartphones—and also less dependent on the cloud, which does a lot of the heavy lifting for smartphones and for existing smart-home devices such as Nest's Nest Cam security camera (formerly known as Dropcam). It's an ambitious goal that involves convincing hardware makers to license Silk, and if things happen as quickly as Gal hopes, Silk-powered products might be available sometime in 2017.

Sense, viewed from its made-of-brass back

In the interim, the company is showing what Silk can do by building it into Sense, a device it's launching as a Kickstarter project today. A tiny tower made of wood, brass, and glass, Sense is one part camera, one part smart-home hub. But it look more like a knickknack that you might display in your living room than a piece of consumer electronics. That's the idea: Silk Labs wants its technology to blend into a home rather than call attention to itself.

Kickstarter backers who pledge at least $249—there's also a $225 early-bird tier—will be able to get a Sense, which Silk Labs plans to ship this December. It can perform tricks of the sort which Silk Labs hopes will define its operating system, such as using facial recognition to notice when a particular person has entered the room and then switch on mood lighting and music customized to that individual's tastes.

That requires technologies such as facial recognition that works at a distance and can recognize someone from a profile view. Moreover, such technologies need to run directly on the device itself; Sense, unlike many smart cameras, doesn't offload all of its processing to the cloud, an approach that opens up security vulnerabilities and leaves people with less control over where their data winds up.

Sense is able to run the necessary software because it packs many of the same chips and other components as a low-end smartphone. The whole approach makes sense given that Gal is the former CTO of Mozilla, where one of his projects was the intriguing (though ultimately unsuccessful) Firefox OS, a smartphone operating system designed for use in basic smartphones in developing nations. (Cofounder Chris Jones is also a Mozilla veteran; Michael Vines, another cofounder, formerly worked at chipmaker Qualcomm.)

Going Up Against Google

By writing an operating system for the Internet of Things, Silk Labs might seem to have chosen the daunting task of competing directly with Google, which announced an IoT OS called Brillo at last year's Google I/O conference. But Gal told me that Brillo is focusing on the basic components of an operating system at a very low level. Silk, which uses Google's Android as one of its ingredients, aims to provide makers of devices with software functionality based on technologies such as machine learning, letting them make their devices perform useful tasks without vast investment of additional engineering resources.

Sliding Sense's curved glass front lets you adjust its camera

If it all comes together, Silk-enabled devices could have the ability to detect signals from their environment and react correspondingly in a way that goes beyond current smart-home gadgetry. "A Dropcam tells you any time there's any movement in the house, which is not really useful," Gal says.

Silk Labs hopes to be a foundational piece of technology for a world in which ordinary light sockets and wall switches are connected via Wi-Fi rather than copper wire, and people get discounts on insurance because the appliances in their home are smart enough to report warning signs of mechanical failure before they happen. When will that come to pass? "It's very hard for me to give you a timeline," Gal told me, "but it's very, very clear that it's going to happen. We want to get there faster."

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