Hands On With The Ubi, A Voice-Activated “Ubiquitous Computer”

Have you ever wanted to stand on the bridge of your very own spacecraft and, in a stentorian voice, proudly declaim “Computer? What is the weather in Brooklyn tomorrow?” The Ubi, announced a few years ago and successfully funded to the tune of $229,000, was supposed to offer us this Picardian Utopia of always-on computing and, to a degree, they’ve succeeded.

What does the Ubi do? You simply plug in the device and connect to your WiFi network. Then the Ubi sits quietly, listening to its surroundings, until you say “OK Ubi.” It then uses Android’s built-in voice recognition to perform a few basic searches and reply with the current weather, answers to math and unit problems, and, with a bit of futzing, you can send emails and SMS messages. Does it work? The short answer is “Yes.” The long answer is far more nuanced.

The promise of always-on computing is fascinating. And this device is a clever first step. It’s nicely designed, small enough to hide in an out-of-the-way corner, and, except for a few specific cases, it seems to work. Sadly, what most people want to do with this thing is launch rockets into outer space, ask it to call their parents for them, and control their Nest from the toilet by shouting into the air. These expectations make things considerably more problematic.

Voice activated hardware is difficult to get right – just ask the makers of the Xbox. Things that seem great in theory are ridiculous in practice and given the fact that there are far better ways to interact with a computer than via the difficult-to-understand human voice. Ubi reacts predictably 90% of the time, but it’s that 10% of the time that dumps us into the uncanny valley of frustration.

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But there is one difference between other ubiquitous computing solutions and Ubi – the Ubi is actually shipping. While customers are complaining they can’t launch nuclear strikes on Scranton from their living rooms, the fact that these guys are shipping a small computer that can recognize simple phrases, and, with a bit of work, begin interacting with the Internet in a very real way is exciting. The Ubi isn’t a bridge computer just yet, but it’s close enough.

The Toronto-based team building the Ubi is tackling a tough problem. Their efforts, while primitive, are limited right now by funding and time. I could see a day when I would ask Ubi to remind me to buy milk at the story (something you can do now) or change the track on my Sonos device (something that may come in the future) but if you open the box expecting Scarlet Johansson in Her you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Ubi is a cool piece of hardware that is far ahead of its time. That it exists at all is a testament to the interest folks have in voice interfaces and, if you bought one and don’t want to use it as an Ubi, the team has made it easy to repurpose the board inside for your own DIY projects. We are all stumbling into the future and Ubi helps us get one step ahead.