Smart home startup Zuli just got some star power with an undisclosed amount of new funding from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who also took a seat on the company's board of advisors. DiCaprio has taken a role with the company in hopes of promoting sustainability. He has funded environmentally-focused startups before, but this appears to be his first smart home investment.
Zuli makes an Internet connected outlet that sells for $60. What's unique about the Zuli outlet is that if you have three of them, they will work together to detect where you are in your home. The idea is that when you walk into your bedroom carrying your phone, any light plugged into the Zuli outlet would automatically turn on.
I've tested the Zuli outlets in my own home and found that they work fairly well. They tended to drain the phone's battery, and sometimes they turned out before I entered the room or a few seconds after I walked in. I expect that some of those wrinkles have been fixed since by software upgrades or will be fixed.
The outlets also let users set schedules for lights to turn on, track the energy use of the devices plugged into the outlets, and dim the lights. As far as smart outlets go, they cost about the same as competing products from Belkin (the WeMo line), ConnectSense, iDevices and others, but offer slightly more features. They also work with the Nest smart thermostat by giving it additional sensors that let it know when someone is in the house. This prevents the Nest from setting the thermostat to "away" mode and turning off the heat or air conditioning.
The Zuli outlets can certainly help save energy if you think traditional lamps and appliances are consuming most of your electricity. As a long-term solution, the ability to detect whether someone is in a house—and where—has the potential to help make smart homes truly smart through automation. So if DiCaprio's investment helps get Zuli the attention and resources it needs to continue improving its device to better detect someone's presence, maybe this is a startup that won't sink.
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