Voice control, artificial intelligence and behavior learning are taking over the “smart home” concept, with numerous companies rushing to occupy this space. However, a small startup named Josh.ai is implementing these trends in a different way.
While many platforms, such as Apple HomeKit or Google Home, aim to be exclusive with certain technologies, Josh.ai takes an alternate approach towards total inclusivity. It’s an idea that could just change the way the industry thinks about connected devices in the home.
TecHome Builder spoke with Alex Capecelatro, CEO and co-founder of Josh.ai, to discuss the company’s beginnings, journey and vision for the future.
Topics include why “playing Switzerland” is best for integrated platforms, what major names like Apple and Google are doing wrong and the origins of the name “Josh.”
What are the origins of Josh.ai and what trends did you see in the industry as you embarked on this project?
We started the company back in March of 2015, so it’s been about a year and a half now. When we were starting, there were a couple things happening. Myself and my cofounder, Tim Gill, had both worked in technology for a long time. My previous company was basically a machine learning, recommendation-engine platform, making beautiful user experiences for Android and iPhone. I was coming out of that company with the feeling of, “I love beautiful user interfaces. I love creating great experiences. But I also want to be impactful towards people and their everyday lives.” Meanwhile, Tim has been working on AI-related projects for a while, and I was building something that basically started out as a Chat Bot—an agent you could say “hello” to, it responds, you can ask for the weather, etc.
So, those were our technical and nerdy interests. But meanwhile, we were dealing—as homeowners and customers—with a variety of companies in this space, and feeling like the software wasn’t as good as we thought it should be. I had bought a home that had an old Crestron system and we found that it was so old, and so poorly done, that we just ripped the whole thing out. Tim ended up putting a Savant system into his house, and Savant is wonderful in so many ways but there is also a lot that it doesn’t do … especially when you think about AI and voice control.
So, you’re looking to transform that user experience through voice control and AI?
Yes. The home is such a great place for this. It’s where we go to relax and sleep. It needs to meet all these demands that typical technology doesn’t often meet. We thought this could be pretty exciting. It’s also an emotional product for a lot of people, because there’s the capability of doing a lot of good. We’ve got customers who are in wheelchairs, or paraplegic, and with a lot of these technologies—like voice control and app control—not having to go and physically control devices is just a transformation. We also looked at this as a business opportunity and thought that it’s silly to go into an exciting business without figuring out how to make money. In this case, it is already well expected that when a customer is putting in a smart control system, they’re going to spend money. And they’ll spend more money as the house gets bigger. So, our feeling was that we could build a business that was sustainable and could grow. It’s obviously a big market, an international market, and it allows us to play with some really cool technology. Right now, it’s a lot of voice control and AI, but moving forward it will be gesture control, image recognition—there is so much cool stuff we can do within this space.
For people unfamiliar with Josh.ai, what does it do? What is it aiming to accomplish?
The way that we look at what we’re doing is that we’re building a natural interface, or a series of interfaces, for controlling the home. Voice happens to be one of those interfaces, but it’s not the only one. And so, what we’re focused on is creating this delightful experience on whatever device the customer cares about. It could be your phone, a tablet, your smart watch, a computer or even just hands-free microphones.
What we want to do is enable very intuitive and very natural control over basically anything that can be connected. Right now, that’s lighting, whole home audio, TVs and AV suites, sprinklers, locks, fans, fireplaces, shades, garage doors—I mean, you name it. We’ve got integrations with pretty much all the big companies that you’ll see in a big home, at least in regards to direct device control. We also integrate directly into Crestron, Control4 is coming soon and hopefully Savant will be shortly after that. Those integrations are really about putting the voice UI into what the systems already have. But, part of what we also do is Josh sits on the network, monitors its traffic and begins to learn. So, for example, if we see that when the garage opens at night, the kitchen light always turns on shortly after, that means the garage is probably connected to the kitchen. You won’t have to program that. Josh will automatically begin turning on the kitchen light when the garage opens at night. There is a lot of that style of learning happening through Josh,ai.
Voice control seems to be dominating the industry right now. Where do you see this trend going, and how does Josh.ai differ from other companies in the same space?
That’s a great question, because there are a number of companies that are going about this in different ways. I think it is going to play out in different ways too. In terms of the way that we’re entering the space, we try to play Switzerland. We’re saying that the homeowner is going to have a different brand of lighting from their locks or speakers, and that’s okay. We want to work with everyone and be pretty brand agnostic.
Then, take the Apple HomeKit worldview, where they are working with a much more limited set of products. These products need to have a physical Apple chip for security purposes, and the company is basically betting it all on the Apple ecosystem. But this doesn’t work if somebody has an Android phone.
Then you have what Google is doing with Google Home. Google announced that all integrations, at least in the beginning, are only going to be with Nest products, Chromecast products, Philips Hue and Samsung SmartThings. Those four integrations, however, don’t really make sense in a CI level home.
What’s interesting is that there has always been this dilemma where big companies are trying to create ecosystems and wall gardens, while basically saying they want everyone to abandon everything else and just use what they have. I don’t think that works in the home. We have too many brands, too many varieties—it’s too custom depending on what the homeowner wants. So, we are betting that the Switzerland-type model is going to make a lot of sense. But, of course, that means we need to do the hard work of integrating with every single product and every single company. This is not easy, but it means the homeowner has freedom of flexibility. They can put in whatever they want and it should just work.
What about behavior learning? Josh.ai seems to be heading down this path with its AI capabilities. How will Josh.ai begin to learn the routines of the homeowner?
Take a simple light. How is that simple light being controlled right now? You have wall dimmers, which I don’t think are going away anytime soon. In a custom home, you’re probably going to have a custom app like Crestron or Lutron to control those lights. Then, you have different interfaces, whether it’s a phone, voice control input or tablet on the wall. You have different times of day where the lights are being turned on and off. Sometimes it’s scheduled, sometimes it’s not. You have different users on the system. The lighting will be different whether you’re home by yourself, or with your family, or having a party.
We understand that, at the beginning, the light is not going to be controlled exclusively through Josh. And I think that’s the same whether you’re Crestron, Savant, Control4, etc. There are a number of different ways to interact. But if you are monitoring the network, you should be able to know when the light goes on, when it goes off, what dim it’s going to and what it’s being orchestrated with. What we’re doing is trying to learn all those patterns and understand what’s really going on so that we can automate it.
The idea is that the AI should be predictive and thinking about not just what you need in the money, but what you need throughout the day. Even further, what we really like is that when you aren’t home, the system can link into Uber or Google Maps, so that if Josh sees you are on your way home, it can be proactive and begin preparing the home.
What is your residential focus currently, and where do you hope to go?
Right now, we are strictly focused on big, complicated projects—around 10,000 feet and onwards to 50,000. We are optimized for these big projects. We handle floors, zones and rooms very well. But if you’re looking at smaller or mid markets, we’re probably not the best fit right now. Over time, hopefully that changes. This differs from, say, Amazon Echo, where it’s a great product but it’s really trying to be a one-size-fits-all solution. So it misses some of that custom stuff that you need in a big home.
How will you work with builders and integrators using Josh.ai?
We work directly with integrators and through integrators. On the first install that an integrator does, we will go out and join them because we want to make sure they know the system. We can help them if there’s any problems. Then, we’re basically partnering with these integrators and helping them as they roll the product out to more of their customers.
Out of curiosity, what is the origin of the name Josh and the dog logo?
Josh started off, oddly enough, as a placeholder name. It was a friend of a friend—someone who was kind of a fun guy, but not the smartest guy. So we laughed and wanted to look at AI in that sense. But it just kind of stuck. If you Google the word “Josh,” the urban dictionary definition basically says “Josh is this cute but fun guy who is always fun to be around.”
We decided to couple that with a logo of a dog because we really don’t like the idea of bringing Josh into the home, and having him be this creepy robot or person. But with dogs, they’re loyal, they’re trustworthy, you can teach them new tricks—so we really like this idea of Josh not being looked at as Jarvis [an AI assistant from “Iron Man”] or some crazy, superhuman smart thing.
We just want it to be part of the family, something that you interact with.
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