Ever wished you could yell at your appliances? Get ready for Siri for the Internet of Things.

By James Robinson , written on February 21, 2014

From The News Desk

I’m sitting in a cafe on Market Street in San Francisco with Duy Huynh, looking on his laptop at a live feed from a webcam set up in his New York apartment. It’s not part of the demonstration, but a woman comes through the front door. We both laugh, awkwardly. He hands me his phone, with the app he’s spent the last four months in San Francisco creating turned on. I repeat the prompt he’s just instructed me to say.

“Turn on disco ball,” I say. I feel self-conscious because we’re in public and it feels like strange behavior. The wi-fi in the cafe is slow, so there’s a 15-second lag where I can see Huynh start to wonder if he’s asked me down here to show me a dud. Like magic, in his apartment a disco ball bursts into life. Huynh smiles. I ask him if this isn’t all going to be quite frightening for the person that just walked into his house, but he laughs it off.

Huynh is the CEO and co-founder of Shortcut, a five-person company that is finishing up this week with a four-month stint in the 500 Startups accelerator. The app launches in April and he sounds confident that they’re about to close a new funding round.

Shortcut has an easily digestible tagline of the sort that spins two recognized terms into a single hypey-phrase. Huyhn likes to bill it as “Siri for the Internet of Things.” You can connect it to any number of your accounts and link actions with simple commands. It links into SmartThings, so you can use it for controlling lights, appliances, locks and garage doors. It links to Nest, so you can control temperature. You can order a pizza on it, Tweet, tell your Fitbit what you had for lunch, check in on FourSquare, split a bill through Coin and much more.

You can also set it to do an array of things under one simple command. I could say to Shortcut, for instance, “James is Home” and program it to turn on my kitchen and hallway light, set the temperature to 70 degrees and start up a little mood music. Welcome to the future, I guess.

Huynh used to work for Fujitsu working on voice control for connected devices ten years ago. “It was way too early,” he says. As an earliest of early adopters, he has an enthusiasm for the Internet of Things that goes well beyond it’s hype-of-the-moment status. He thinks that Shortcut answers a “painpoint” with the Internet of Things, providing one simple voice control for every connected device. I ask him if he thinks that it is too early for this to be a problem yet. The savvy people are still getting to their first connected devices.

“Not a lot of people have as many connected devices as I do,” Huynh admits. “It’s really been the nerds that love it.” Still, he stands by the present validity of Shortcut.

Building Shortcut was simple, Huynh says. But the technology itself is still hard. Shortcut is one single screen where you give your commands. The software needs access to a service’s API and a backend for users to connect their accounts. The voice recognition technology is simple, but comprehension is harder. Three to five word requests are its sweet spot, he says. Conversation has to be declarative and robotic. You could Tweet on it, but you won’t wow your followers. Huynh’s demonstration Tweet is simply, “I am happy.”

Huynh was 10 years of the Internet of Things wave with Fujitsu and Shortcut’s arrival in April will still come ahead of the demand curve for connected products. The arrival of SmartThings and its adaptable hubs and Electric Imp’s affordable chips that let you give anything in your home wi-fi capability mean that there’s more power for interested parties to make their own home connected, Huynh says. We don’t have to wait for the new Nest anymore. If you want a smart coffee maker, you can buy a SmartThings adapter.

Shortcut exploits the new sense of control that mobile technology has given us. Even if the Internet of Things hasn’t proliferated widely enough yet eventually it will and there will be a demand for simple interfaces, single apps that give us control over the entire home.

What this control will look like and what we will ask this technology to do hasn’t been worked out yet. Huynh is a connectivity fanboy, in a good way. But where he gets joy from grinding beans and putting water into his coffee maker and being able to turn it on from his bed in the morning with a simple voice prompt, even he admits that in the end he’s not saving himself that much effort. I tell him that it would feel awkward to stand across the room from a light switch and rather than walking over to it turning it on, pull out my phone, open up an app and tell it to do so. But Huynh says, one of the most popular use cases for Shortcut so far is turning off basement lights. So maybe we need to connect everything before we know what it is we actually want connected.

The voice element is a wildcard. Huynh says that voice is the only universal tool for control, but it could be a while before I’d feel comfortable robotically barking at my phone “James is home” as I round the corner onto my street at night.

At a consumer level, we’re still figuring out what we want the Internet of Things to do for us. Until we do Shortcut might struggle to get a hold of its market. There’s a push and pull that will happen that will make macro-level entrepreneurship like Shortcut hard.

Although, as I thought back to commanding appliances in Huynh’s apartment to turn on and off with my voice from 3,000 miles away, it was clear that what pops up along the way - whether it survives or not - will be interesting.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]