The idea of a single product quarterbacking all of the connected gadgets in your home is an appealing one, but smart home hubs from names like Revolv, Staples Connect and Wink have struggled to break through in recent years. One notable exception is Amazon Echo, a smart-home speaker that brings voice control into the picture. Not surprisingly, a new generation of wannabe hubs is putting a similar emphasis on voice control. The newest we’ve seen is Mycroft, presumably named after the fictional elder brother of Sherlock Holmes.
Despite looking a bit like an alarm clock, Mycroft is an open-source, AI-powered smart home platform with Raspberry Pi 2 and Arduino controllers at its core. Just say its name, and the Wi-Fi-connected Mycroft will perk up. Give it a command like “lock the front door” or “turn on the porch light,” and it’ll follow suit, working directly with your smart-home gear to carry out your orders.
That’s essentially the same approach as Amazon Echo, and at a price of $129 (a little over £80, or about AU$175), Mycroft comes at roughly the same cost, too. Mycroft claims that the difference is in its open source approach, with a variety of open application program interfaces (APIs) powering its voice processing capabilities. Those APIs are the blueprints to building custom code that tells Mycroft how to function; Mycroft’s team claims that the open approach helps keep development costs down while improving the product’s accuracy and usability.
Combined with the familiar Raspberry Pi and Arduino interfaces, it’s an intriguing pitch for anyone hoping to tinker around with the way their smart home hub works (or for anyone looking to borrow software breakthroughs posted online), but it’s not a unique one. The more expensive CastleOS CastleHub also takes an open approach to its software, as do some established players like theSmartThings Hub. Even Amazon Echo released a software development kit (SDK) earlier this year.
Despite the fact that Mycroft is still seeking funding on Kickstarter, the platform already promises compatibility with several key names in the connected home, including SmartThings, IFTTT, Belkin WeMo, Philips Hue, Nest and Lowe’s Iris. Mycroft also announced a partnership with the open-sourced, Linux-based Ubuntu that’ll put the hacker- and Internet of Things-friendly Snappy Core Ubuntu operating system in control of each unit.
In addition to wrangling your smart-home gadgets, Mycroft promises to play media by syncing up with popular services like Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and Spotify, then streaming the output to supported devices such as Roku and Chromecast. Like with Amazon Echo, you’ll also be able to ask for weather updates or news headlines, ask for spelling and math assistance, or simply ask it to tell you a knock-knock joke.
Under the hood, Mycroft runs on a quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor with 1 GB of memory. You can connect with your home router wirelessly, or connect directly with an Ethernet cable. For extra tinkering flexibility, Mycroft sells an extended version of the hub for $159 (about £100, or AU$215) which includes a backplate that allows easy access to the Raspberry Pi 2’s HDMI and USB 2.0 ports, along with the GPIO header.
There are no radios for popular smart-home standards like Bluetooth, Z-Wave or Zigbee inside Mycroft, so you’ll still need gateway gadgets like the SmartThings Hub or WeMo Link to connect it with products that broadcast in anything other than Wi-Fi. That makes it more of a voice-powered upgrade for those sorts of smart-home systems, rather than a true all-in-one solution.
Backing Mycroft is a bit of a leap of faith at this point, as the device still needs a good deal of development before production can get underway. With 23 days left in the Kickstarter campaign, it’s sitting at about 40 percent of its funding goal — if Mycroft gets to the finish line, units are estimated to ship out to backers by July 2016.