Review: Ubi the ubiquitous computer (consumer release)
Last month, Canada's UCIC announced the consumer launch of the Ubi. As regular readers may already know, Gizmag has been following the progress of this ever-present, always-on, voice-controlled vault of internet knowledge since its successful crowdfunding outing back in 2012. I was fortunate enough to get invited to join the beta program, and have now spent the last couple of weeks trying out the new-improved version (and taking a sneaky peek at things yet to come).
Since the hardware has remained much the same as the beta unit that's currently in front of me waiting to be woken up, I'll not revisit old ground, but there have been a few minor tweaks where internal components have needed to be replaced due to being discontinued by manufacturers. The biggest change, however, is the ditching of the snug power adapter in favor of a USB cable and power plug solution. The main reason for this is to offer users more freedom of placement. For the most part, my Ubi hangs from a wall outlet in the kitchen, but new users can sit the computer on a kitchen worktop, bookcase or desk and feed the cable to a nearby wall outlet.
By contrast, the software has undergone a major upgrade. Where interacting with the Ubi during April's beta review was more miss than hit, the opposite is true with the current version. It's simply a whole lot easier to get what you need from the new Ubi, and is something that both myself and my partner noticed immediately.
That's not to say that it's all plain sailing. Conversing with the Ubi is not exactly what I'd call natural. Clear, precise speech appears to yield the best results, but the device did manage to understand much of what was being said when my French visitors – and their rather strong accents – dived right in. Recent question and answer sessions have produced some very, erm, interesting bloopers, too, including my asking "Parlez-vous français?" and Ubi apparently thinking I'd said something quite rude and answering with "I am not interested in anatomy."
On a few occasions, it seemed as though the Ubi was developing a distinct personality, responding to a request for a weather update with "do you think I am some kind of world weather robot?" or informing me that "I listen to Steve Vai from time to time" when asked to play some music by the great man, for example. UCIC CEO Leor Grebler informed me that this is likely the result of Ubi only partly understanding what was being requested, which I later confirmed by going through the "utterance" logs. Funny though.
As with the beta system, every interaction between user and Ubi is sent to and stored in the Ubi Cloud. In my earlier review of the beta system I voiced some concern about privacy and security relating to every word being stored on UCIC servers and Grebler assured me that only the user and the company has access to the utterance logs, and that Ubi isn't listening all of the time. Only after the wake up phrase will logging begin. There have been a few minor tweaks to this since April.
"The way we now have it setup is that the user has the ability to delete the data when they'd like," he told me. "We keep their utterances for them as long as they'd like until they delete it."
Deleting logged conversations between user and the Ubi is undertaken via the Portal.
Introducing the UbiCC app
Another welcome addition to the Ubi experience is the Ubi Control Center app, which is Android only for the moment, but iOS support is on the company's To-Do list. Since first launching the app on my Galaxy Note 8.0 tablet to solve handshake issues I had with my new router, I've only interfaced with the Ubi once or twice via the browser-based Portal on my laptop, which is indicative of just how useful I found this app to be.
On the Home page, the app displays each Ubi from the top down, followed by any Wemos that are set up. There's a blue disc with a cross in the middle which is used to add more devices to the Portal.
Swiping from the left brings up the CC menu, where a record of interactions between device and user can be viewed, contacts can be managed and the latest Ubi news can be accessed. Pressing the Help icon brings up a list of suggested ways that Ubi can be used, the kind of questions which can be asked and details of how to get a bit more technical by setting up HTTP requests.
Selecting an Ubi from the Home screen produces the main UbiCC interface for that device. The sensor readings are displayed across the top and pressing a sensor icon brings up a graph record of the readings at either 1 minute, 5 minute or hourly intervals. Under the row of readings is a "talk" icon. Activating this allows a user to use the microphone of the smart device, in my case a tablet, to converse with the Ubi.
The advantage of interacting with the always-on computer in this way is that you're likely to be closer to the smart device than you would be to the Ubi when speaking, which improves the chances of "her" understanding what you want first time. The answers to any questions will still be routed through the Ubi's own speakers, however, and not the smart device (users still have only two female voices to choose from, but the speed of the speech to can be adjusted to suit personal preferences). When used with the middle of three icons underneath the microphone button, this feature becomes even more useful.
The "Repeat After Me" function can be used as a kind of one-way intercom service. Speaking into the mobile device microphone is followed a few seconds later with that same message repeated through the speakers of the Ubi, in your own voice. Obvious applications include letting your partner in the living room at home know that you're on your way home from work, reminding the kids to get their homework done pronto or announcing to a room over the other side of the house that dinner is ready without having to raise your voice.
The left-most icon in this trio is something labeled "Ask continue." Normally, when asked to play music, the Ubi will find a track and let it play for about 10 seconds before stopping playback and asking if you'd like to continue listening. This is useful if you don't like the selection, but can be slightly annoying if it's something you like. This little icon allows you to disable that process, so the song is played uninterrupted. One of Ubi's "cute" little foibles is that once you've agreed to let the track play on, there's no way of getting Ubi's attention until the song has finished. The right-most control – a cyan square – gives you the power to stop the music whenever you want.
The drop-down menu icon to the top right of the Home screen can be used to switch between Fahrenheit and Celsius for the temperature readings, tweak the device settings (including setting the speed of the voice and output volume level) or refresh the page.
Then there's the Utterance log. Pressing a speech bubble gives the option to have the utterance repeated, but if Ubi has misunderstood a request, the app gives the option to type in the request. Very useful.
For me, using the Android app to supplement my interactions with the Ubi made for a much improved experience than by voice alone. The layout is easier to follow than the browser-based version of the Portal and there are all those power buttons (with more to come) to play with.
If you have multiple Ubi computers throughout the house, there's also that useful one way intercom functionality to tell kids to get ready for a trip to park without having to shout from the bottom of the stairs or, if you and your partner get up for work at different times, you can kick off some music to wake them from slumber when you get to the office or remotely set an alarm.
A glimpse of the future
UCIC's CEO offered Gizmag the opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball and see something of the things to come for the Ubi. In the coming weeks, all Ubi users will be switched over to Grooveshark as a music source rather than SoundCloud (Ed's note: As a result of legal issues, Grooveshark was shut down in 2015). This is not yet able to users via the portal or the app, but a few lines of command codes from Grebler and my Ubi was searching a different music database for tunes.
Though this makes more music available to the listener, there's still some work to be done on randomizing the results of requests. Asking for some music by BB King, for example, does get you a BB King track, but repeating the request will just get you the same song again. Grebler advised that the team is working to make the whole music listening experience a better one.
I also got a quick preview of the upcoming ability to stream continuous music, rather than having to ask for genre or specific artists one song at a time. This will be a particularly welcome enhancement in our household, useful for background ambiance or just something to hum along to when cooking.
Though the Ubi is currently only available to US customers, the development team is already laying the groundwork for expansion beyond US borders. Grebler pushed the Android British English language module down the line to my Ubi to see if the already pretty good hit rate might be improved further. Bizarrely though, the Ubi's speech recognition seemed to work better for me on the default US setting – perhaps I've been away from the UK far too long.
In the near future, users will also be able to help Ubi give more localized weather reports by entering precisely where in the world they're located rather than the general region or area.
Lastly, I was shown a demo of the just launched Ubi IFTTT channel. Users will now be able to use Ubi as an action trigger for devices or services, or have Ubi make announcements when certain conditions are met. By way of example, the Ubi could give a voice to Facebook or Twitter feeds or announce an incoming email. Grebler's team has already added a number of "recipes" to the channel, and the Ubi community has added even more. Users are being encouraged to sign up and start cooking for themselves.
The bottom line
I admit to being impressed by what the UCIC team has achieved since April. The Ubi now responds faster to requests for information and gets things right first time more often than not. There were mistakes, sure, but given that my natural slur is nowhere near what the Ubi might expect to hear, I think it did really well. It's about the same experience I've had using Google Now. Sometimes there's a misunderstanding, other times you hit pay dirt.
Integration with Google Calendar is a useful new addition, as is the ability to set alarms (even if we've so far only used this feature as a kind of countdown clock when cooking). Users can also send dictated emails or text to contacts entered into the Ubi's address book.
It's not going to replace my tablet or laptop any time soon, and as I don't use any home automation devices, I can't vouch for the Ubi's performance in that department, but it's nonetheless proved a useful, and popular, addition to the household.
The Ubi is available now for US$299. As mentioned above, development continues apace, and new features and capabilities are continually being added, though UCIC is about to get some aggressively-priced company in this space in the shape of Amazon's new Echo speaker.