This startup’s connected outlets can make your smart home even smarter

September 24, 2015, 10:00 AM UTC
Image courtesy of Zuli.

As I walk into my master bedroom, a bedside table lamp turns on. Five minutes after I exit it turns off. The same thing happens downstairs when I enter the guest room of my home to put away sheets. It feels very much like I live in the future. When it works.

I’m testing a $160 package of three outlets from a startup called Zuli. The outlets allow me to plug in any device and turn it on and off remotely, set schedules, gather energy consumption, and, if the device is a lamp, I can dim it. But the real magic comes into play when you have three of these outlets plugged into your home, because then they can track where you are and offer presence awareness.

Presence is big. To get to a truly smart home, devices need more context, and knowing where people are in the home is a crucial piece of context. For example, one of the most popular Internet connected devices in the home is probably the Nest thermostat. It can sense when you are home or away based on a proximity sensor in the thermostat. But because thermostats are usually located in out-of-the-way locations, a lot of people find themselves working away in an isolated corner of the house only to realize their thermostat has switched to away mode because they haven’t walked in front of the thermostat in a while.

Another popular application for better presence is turning on lights. Motion detectors work, but if someone is still, the lights can turn off. With presence based on Zuli’s outlets, that use Bluetooth communicating with your phone, the lights won’t turn off unless your phone exits the room. There are dozens of use cases for finely tuned presence detection in the home, especially if the devices offering that precise detection are open to sharing that information with other connected products and services through an application programming interface (API).

Zuli isn’t there yet. But neither is any other company with products on the market at the moment.

First off, Zuli’s outlets work with Bluetooth, and today you need your phone (specifically an iPhone) to communicate with the outlets. This means the presence detection only works when your phone is in your pocket and for people who have their phone (running the Zuli app) on them. I found in living with the outlets for a week that the experience was a bit uneven.

Sometimes my light turned on as I walked into the room, but other times it would turn on about 10 feet away from the door. In a worst case scenario I’d have to walk about six feet into the room before the light would turn on. I also noticed that when I set the light to turn off after I left, if I didn’t go into a room with another Zuli outlet in it, the system wouldn’t always register that I had left the room and left the light on.

When I had my phone and everything worked, it was like magic. It was exactly how I wanted my home to perform and it avoided a lot of the rules and programming issues that come with the motion sensors I’ve tried previously. However, it drained my battery quite a bit, and I was also frustrated because I wanted to use the presence information from the outlets to trigger other smart home devices, like my light switches. I don’t have that many lamps to trigger in my home.

Zuli co-founder and CEO Taylor Umphreys says the company is considering how it might create a way to share presence information, and it currently has an integration with the Nest thermostat so the outlets can act as a presence sensor to help keep your Nest from going into Away mode when you are at home. I’d like to see something a little more open-ended like an If This Then That channel, but that’s not in the plans right now, according to Umphreys.

However, even with the flaws I think if you’re in the market for a stand-alone smart home product (or one that works with Nest) and are interested in connected outlets, these compare well with existing options on the market. They have more features for the price than the Belkin Wemo Insight outlets, which also offers energy monitoring but lacks the lamp dimming capability and presence features. Once you start playing with presence you start seeing how compelling a smart home will be. And how truly far off we are from one.

For more about other company’s smart efforts, watch this Fortune video:

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