This Startup Wants To Smarten Up Your Smart Home Devices

Meet Thington, the cheery British universal remote for your smart home.

Today, Thington launches. It’s a smart assistant app that aims to simplify smart home devices.

Thington’s distinctive feature? Thington Concierge, a conversational bot that helps you set up and control the smart things you’ve already set up in your home. From weather stations to light switches to security cameras, it supports a range of devices.

How does it work?

With its bot messenger interface, Concierge allows you to create rules for your house. You can set your lights to glow fluorescent during the day and incandescent during the night, or to turn on when you get home. Or, for example, you can program your Nest thermostat to lower the heat while you’re sleeping in your cozy bed, and then to raise the temperature before you wake up. And you can add people to a “Guest List” to give them access to your home's controls when they’re visiting you. These kinds of combinations and features, Thington founders Tom Coates and Matt Biddulph believe, is their product’s competitive edge: It’s more like an assistant with a personality than a remote.

Giving your smart home that personality, Biddulph said, is only made possible by simplifying all the different devices and unifying their interfaces. That's Thington's biggest technical challenge. “We want it to be like texting a friend who knows how to set up this kind of stuff instead of needing a degree in computer science.”

Coates and Biddulph founded Thington after Coates created House of Coates, an automated Twitter account for his house that tracks when his electronics turn on and off, as well as Coates’ own movements. The account received a fair amount of positive press, which got Coates thinking about how the Internet will connect and transform homes.

“After the social web, there’s the physical. The tendrils of the internet extend,” Coates said. It’s no coincidence Thington’s feed looks a lot like Twitter’s; users even have to log in with their Twitter accounts. This is one of the more perplexing Thington features: If you, or your guests, aren't on Twitter, you're out of luck. Creating a Twitter account just to control your smart home devices seems like an unnecessary hurdle for an app that's designed to simplify your life.

How big is the connected home market?

Do we need a conversational remote for smart homes? Biddulph told BuzzFeed News, “These aren’t ‘wildly niche’ devices; it’s just an early market.” The Thington founders estimate these devices are in “10 to 25% of American homes.” They might be a little optimistic — The Economist cites research that 6% of US homes have smart devices.

Right now, Thington only works with devices from five manufacturers. But Biddulph and Coates estimate that 80 to 85% of manufacturers they've spoken to have agreed to work with them, so they say more device compatibility is on the way.

How will Thington make money?

Thington will, eventually, recommend other smart devices for users’ homes. That capability isn’t launching today, though.

“We want to build that trust first with our users first, then take advertisements by manufacturers,” Biddulph told BuzzFeed News. “We don’t want to be invasive.” The company also encrypts users’ data and scrubs it after a few weeks. According to the founders, the app only tracks your movements when you’re inside a Thington-enabled house.

What else is out there?

According to Business Insider, an estimated 1.6 to 3 million homes have an Amazon Echo speaker, which comes with the smart home system Alexa, according to Business Insider. Alexa can also serve as a central control for smart devices. Google announced Google Home, an Alexa lookalike, on Tuesday. And Apple’s HomeKit comes pre-installed on iPhones. Thington is competing with a number of smart home apps.

Coates pointed out that the apps don’t do the same thing — HomeKit only works with pre-approved smart devices, whereas Thington aims to work with every flavor. But it's yet to be seen if the average user will discern that difference.

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