With these questions in my mind, we approached Mr.Yuvraj Tomar who is the founder of Thinqbot Technologies, a company that provides home automation solutions. At Thinqbot, Yuvraj oversees the full-stack technology design while developing viable business strategies and strengthening partner network. Before starting Thinqbot, Yuvraj had software development stints at KDE, Google, and Cisco.
Q. What inspired you to start Thinqbot?
In 2013, I was looking for a solution to automate my apartment. My landlord wouldn't allow rewiring and changing the electrical layout of the home, and the available solutions didn’t cater to my needs. I researched a lot but couldn't find the ideal retrofit solution. The products that I bought didn't give a satisfactory user experience and I felt that smart homes in general, are "broken". I took it up as a personal challenge to fix it by creating a solution that can be installed in any home (whether old or new), without changing the wiring layout of the house, packed with all the features and integrations in an intuitive 3D UI. That was the start of Thinqbot.
Q. How does Thinqbot differ from other home automation solution providers?
We talk about smart lights, and smart appliances when talking about the smart home, but we often forget the basic entity which should be automated for a proper experience - the switchboard. There is no solution that can retrofit inside your switchboard and cater to a dimmable load plus a heavy load, on one board, unless they have to rewire the switch panel or change the electrical layout.
To battle this age-old proposition, we have created a modular hardware design that can retrofit inside any switchboard, old or new, big or small. The user can even mix and match a combination of heavy, regular or dimmable loads on one board till 8 appliances on one board. One of our biggest advantages is that we don't require any change in the existing electrical wiring of the house. Our solution works on 6LoWPAN, which sets up a wireless mesh covering the whole home or even a mansion. On the software side, we have created a new UI for interacting with the physical devices, in 3D. It feels intuitive, and can even be used by kids and elderly alike..
Q. Home automation sounds like an expensive idea, who should opt for it? How do you sense the market for it in India?
Due to the limitations of existing wireless retrofit solutions, the only way to fully and reliably automate your home is to install Crestron or Control4 solutions; which are mostly wired solutions (Cat6). So the customer ends up paying a premium for installation and wiring just for a basic experience. This is also the biggest reason why the retrofit smart home market hasn't taken off. Even after all the hassle, the customer gets a UI that looks straight out from the 90s. Thus people who are looking to renovate their home or buying a new home are the ones opting for these solutions as the inertia and complexity of installation isn’t an inhibiting factor in these scenarios. Because of the high price tag, home automation has always had the perception of luxury and not a necessity.
The market is slowly making a shift towards retrofit and affordable solutions, and more people have begun experimenting with DIY solutions as well. A lot of promising startups are there in this space but none of them cater to the whole-home market like the breadth and features of the incumbents. It is just waiting for disruption where, if a solution that can offer Crestron like features and reliability at affordable prices, a monumental shift in consumer adoption will happen.
Q. What was the first product of Thinqbot? How was your experience in building a tech company in India?
It wasn’t a single product as such, our first rollout included a hub and a unified switchboard module which could control up to 4 devices per board. From then on we had a lot of iterations with the hardware design and expanded our portfolio to accommodate security and entertainment offerings.
It’s an adage in the tech world that "Hardware is hard". After all, a programmer can ship an app; armed with just a whiteboard, a marker, some carbonated drinks and noodles, and a montage of "wired-in" coding sprees on a computer. But a new piece of hardware has an entirely different story. It has to go through design revisions, materials tests, and manufacturing regulations before it sees the light of day. In hindsight, building a hardware company in India has been difficult and it would have been a lot easier in Shenzhen, or Hong Kong. But the return of investment on talent across the entire stack is unbeatable in India, and that plays a significant advantage to start any business here.
Q. How does the whole home automation architecture of Thinqbot look like?
Our solution is comprised of 5 layers:
1. Hardware - sensors sending data and actuators performing control actions.
2. Middleware - wireless network layer for transmitting data across sensors
3. Local Gateway - local intelligence for automation, voice, image, and media
4. Cloud - servers hosted on AWS for supporting features and requirements
5. App - 3D UI developed in a game-engine for controlling and viewing the home
Then we expose our APIs locally and over the cloud for 3rd Party Integrations and services.
Q. What is 6LoWPAN and why is it most widely used in Home Automation?
6LoWPAN is an acronym for IPv6 over Low-powered Wireless Personal Area Networks. It is a mesh networking technology (similar to Zigbee and Z-Wave), however it is IPv6 based and has a lot of functionalities making it suitable for managing IoT devices. In fact, 6LoWPAN practically has little adoption in the consumer space; LIFX Smart Bulbs, Tado Thermostats, Sensibo IR Blasters being some of them. The obvious answer is that because the protocol is much ‘younger’ than its competitors and the pieces needed to make it useful (like the border router), haven’t existed for long. Having said that, 6LoWPAN is proving to be a strong contender to replace wired solutions for large installations, and prove the reliability of wireless sensor networks. There are companies in Europe (Sensinode and Cetic) that are using 6LoWPAN for entire buildings, let alone homes.
Q. How does all the hardware in home gets connected to the Qube (Internal Gateway)?
Qube exposes a bundle of wireless protocols for connectivity, namely: WiFi, BLE, 6LoWPAN and IR. All our products use 6LoWPAN and WiFi to connect to Qube and thereby establish the link to talk to user app or the cloud.
Q. What are the features of Qube platinum, what hardware allows you to pack in all these features?
The platinum version of Qube is geared towards security and entertainment features compared to the basic version which is targeted towards automation. In Qube (Platinum) we have the following bundle of features available:
- Make any dumb TV smart by connecting it to Qube and access everything including your TV Guide, social media accounts (such as Netflix), and even your stored media content on an external hard-drive connected to Qube.
- No need for Dropbox or Google Drive, connect a hard-disk to Qube and make it your personal cloud.
- We encrypt all user data and bundle it with a VPN service to provide complete anonymity.
- You can now watch shows on Netflix US, or stream from Spotify UK, at your home in India. Even better, think torrents.
- Universal Streaming incorporates AirPlay, GoogleCast and Miracast in one, allowing you to transform your TV or projector into a universal screen mirroring receiver, instantly turning the room into a collaborative space.
Q. How does Atom work and how does it get connected to the Internet?
Atom is the starting point for experiencing automation. It connects via WiFi and has a relay module inside for controlling appliances. As it can directly connect to the cloud, the hub is not required to control Atom products and is thus affordable for users who want to automate a few appliances to begin with.
Q. It is a huge relief that spark hardware’s could fit into the existing switch boards in our home, how does this really work? What enables the hardware to be compact?
We’ve designed Spark in a modular fashion and that is the sole reason why we are able to retrofit inside switchboards. Typical in-switch control modules have a power supply, a networking module, a control module and actuator units; assembled in one board. We’ve designed all those parts as stand-alone units which snap-fit behind the switches. That way we make use of the available real-estate between the switch terminals, thereby occupying only 12-14mm behind the switchboards. Such a configuration makes it easier for any household electrician to install the Spark modules.
Q. What are the features of Beam? And how does it mimic the IR and RF signals?
Beam is an Infrared and RF emitter. It can control any device that works with an IR/RF remote, such as TVs, ACs, Set-Top- Boxes, Home-Theatre Systems, Curtains, Color LED Strips, etc; making it the perfect device for your Living room and Bedroom.
There is a learning component also built in Beam, in which it can learn all the remote commands and subsequently replicate them for usage. We store raw IR and RF data for replication, that makes our firmware protocol independent to control IR and RF signals.
Q. How does beam manage to blast the IR signals in all directions? How far is its range?
Beam has 7 IR emitter diodes which can project upto 10m in line of sight with an angular spread of 120 degrees. The diodes are placed in a manner that it can cover the available hemisphere in its range.
Q. Neon Strips and Neon Panels really seems to be futuristic, how much current do they consume and are they expensive?
Neon Strips consume 72W and the Neon Panels consume 0.5W to 2W per panel. Neon Strips are priced competitive to Syska LED Strips, Neon Panels start at INR 3k per panel (minimum order of 9 panels).
Q. I am intrigued by the products of Thinqbot, where should I get started if I need to automate my home?
There are various tenets to making your home smart – automation, security, and entertainment. The best value comes when all these facets are integrated together. In case you want to focus on a particular category, then the best place to start would be to choose products in that category and customize it later as your needs grow. The language of home automation is such that the consumer lacks clarity of what he’s getting into before making the purchase. To avoid this, we schedule a feasibility call and visit to the customer’s premises to understand their automation needs properly and then guide them to prepare the best solution in an A-la-Carte manner.
Q. Being a Designer and Developer, what are your favourite hardware and tools to work with? Why?
I use a MacBook Pro which runs all the utilities for my firmware programming, middleware programming, app development and cloud computing. Most of my development tools are also divided across these 4 domains:
- Firmware: ST
- PCB: KiCAD
- Middleware: Bash, Vim, Cscope (Not a fan of IDE for middleware programming)
- App: 3DS Max, Unity3D, XCode, Microsoft Visual Develop
- Cloud: PyCharm, GoLand, Bash
- Other: SnapMaker
Q. From where do you source components for Thinqbot? Was it easy to establish a supply chain in India?
The supply chain is scattered across Shenzhen, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ahmedabad, NCR, Chennai and Bangalore. Sometimes we source components through AliExpress and AliBaba for prototyping, especially when the volumes are small. Establishing and managing the supply chain has been an intensive task. Ideally, all these processes should be streamlined under a few Contract Manufacturers but we’ll tackle that at a later stage when we move the entire SCM to Shenzhen.
Q. What would be your word of advice to your fellow Engineers?
Leaving a legacy is a fool's errand.
Play by the rules and win.
Seek no destination or no glory.
Think of it like an orchestra.
Compose, structure, arrange.
And gather the people
Who all share the common vision
To wander and create a beautiful symphony.