The $299 Unified Computer Intelligence Corporation (UCIC) Ubi, short for "ubiquitous computer," is a smallish square device built on an Android platform that's packed full of microphones, speakers and sensors. (While not available in these countries yet, directly converted that's roughly £190 in the UK and AU$350 in Australia). Not surprisingly, this Wi-Fi-and-Bluetooth-enabled gadget's core functionality focuses on voice control -- it's always at the ready to respond to your commands and questions after the requisite trigger phrase, "OK, Ubi."
Much like Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana, Ubi is supposed to help you set calendar reminders and schedule alarms, answer general questions and even automate products from Belkin WeMo , SmartThings , Ecobee and more. While it did a passable job with basic admin ("Remind me to start a load of laundry in 15 minutes.") and home automation, most of my interactions with Ubi were a struggle. It often took more than one attempt to get and answer and sometimes even then the response didn't come close to matching my original inquiry.
If you're determined to get a voice control gadget, I prefer Ubi to the poorer-performing Ivee Sleek , but just know that "ubiquitous computer" feels like a pretty big stretch.
Jumping right in
The most interesting Ubi feature is its "utterance" section. You can find it only on the Ubi Web portal (it's optimized for Chrome) or on the UbiCC Android app (it requires 4.0 and higher); there is currently no iOS app, but co-founder Leor Grebler told me it was a possible future addition. This is where Ubi transcribes what it hears you say and what response it gives.
As mentioned, Ubi is designed to be a sort of personal-administrative-assistant-hybrid, setting calendar appointments, wake-up calls, reminding you to take your medicine and even turning on your Belkin WeMo Switch-connected desk lamp or adjusting your Nest or Ecobee3 thermostat at your behest. It's also supposed to be able to respond to general questions that you might stick in a search engine, like the current weather condition, how many calories are in a cheese pizza, what is the capital of Texas, and so on.
That suggests a sort of Siri-or-Ok-Google-style ubiquity; it may not get it right every time, but it generally knows what you're asking. That was simply not the case with Ubi. And that's where the utterance section comes into play.
I asked Ubi "Who was the first US president?" It responded, "Wilbur Wright." I asked again 8 minutes later and it responded, "George Washington was a famous 18th century North American Hemp cultivator. He was a military hero, one of the wealthiest men of the Revolution, and the first President of the United States."
But, before I asked either of those questions I asked Ubi, "Who was the first president?," forgetting to add in a specific country and it replied, "It depends on what sort of President you are talking about. Presumably you mean the United States remember, other countries have Presidents too. Thank you."
This is part of what made Ubi so fun to test. Just when you think it's only pulling out key words from phrases and trying its hardest to get to answer right, it comes back with a super accurate response that almost makes you think it's understood everything all along and is just messing with you (I did forget to specify the US after all). This sort of snooty delivery punctuated many interactions and had the whole office laughing on more than one occasion.
And after Ubi named Wilbur Wright as the first US president, it answered a string of questions flawlessly. Go figure.
As endearing as Ubi's unpredictable responses turned out to be, very few folks will want to drop $299 on something so consistently inconsistent. So, I returned to the pre-approved list laid out on the Ubi Web portal and tried again. I asked, "How many calories are in macaroni and cheese." Ubi responded, "More than a million." Cheeky.
Ubi did better when I asked it to set reminders for me, send emails to contacts I added to its portal and initiate rules for the Belkin WeMo Switch. But even there, I ran into some issues. I programmed Ubi to turn off my space heater (which was connected to a Belkin WeMo Switch) when I said, "turn on/off heater." That tended to work well, but if I said, "turn heater on/off," not so much.
Ambient noise, echoes and distance from the Ubi all can influence how accurately it hears you. So can your timing. Ubi's built-in LEDs turn blue when it registers the "OK, Ubi" trigger and then turn green to indicate that you can begin to talk.
Scrolling through the utterance log, I noticed that Ubi only heard part of what I said on several occasions. That was pretty much guaranteed to return a completely erroneous response from Ubi or none at all. I did what I could to talk only when the green LEDs were illuminated, but this still happened fairly often:
Back to the basics
I relied on the Web portal for the initial Ubi installation and thought the process was a bit involved. Fortunately, the setup page shows several pointers up-front that make the setup go more smoothly. Even so, I had to reset the system and start fresh a few times, but Ubi eventually connected after roughly 30 minutes.
While the Web interface is easy enough to navigate, it isn't particularly well-designed. The home page has a snapshot of the current temperature, humidity, air pressure and sound and light levels. If you click on the box with all of that temperature-reading info, you can see logged sensor data over time, create new rules and make changes to existing ones.
The second box displays any connected third-party devices. Since I linked a Belkin WeMo Switch to Ubi, it is displayed on the home page. You can click on the third box to add additional WeMo products, SmartThings devices, smart thermostats and more.
Ubi is pretty similar to the voice-activated Ivee Sleek, a $199 product that also can integrate with Nest and other smart home products. Ivee Sleek also had a hard time responding to my questions, but its built-in radio was completely unusable and its design looked a lot more like an old radio alarm clock than an innovative hands-free home automation product. Although Ubi is pricier, none of its features failed outright and its Nest-Protect -looking design is easy on the eyes.
The recently-announced $199 Amazon Echo is another voice-activated smart home product. This speaker-device isn't available yet, but its supposed to have a lot of the same functionality as Ubi and Ivee Sleek. Given that it, and Apple's HomeKit, have the backing of big names, the voice control competition could become much more fierce in the near future.
That's a wrap
Although Ubi isn't supposed to be a voice-activated solution to Google or any other advanced search engine, it did have a tough time meeting its own expectations. Even UCIC's list of "things to say to your Ubi" bewildered it fairly frequently. And while it may have a better hardware design and overall performance than Ivee Sleek, it still feels very much like a beta product.
On top of that, $299 is also a lot to spend for a snarky voice control assistant. I'd hold off on Ubi in its current state, especially with Apple's iOS 8 HomeKit platform and the Amazon Echo on the voice-activated smart home horizon.