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Amin Abdossalami, Mahyer Fotoohi and Leor Grebler are developing a small web-connected computer called Ubi that responds to voice commands. (Handout)
Amin Abdossalami, Mahyer Fotoohi and Leor Grebler are developing a small web-connected computer called Ubi that responds to voice commands. (Handout)

Mark Evans

Toronto trio develops voice-activated computer Add to ...

Just as the personal computing world is embracing the idea of touching a screen to control different functions, a group of Toronto-based entrepreneurs have decided users are ready for the next stage: voice-activated computing.

Leor Grebler, Amin Abdossalami and Mahyar Fotoohi are developing a small, web-connected computer called Ubi, which responds to voice commands. It's about the size of a smartphone, and it plugs into an electrical outlet. It connects to the web via wi-fi. The trio has already received an enthusiastic response.

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To support Ubi, they turned to Kickstarter, a popular crowdfunding service that lets people contribute money to particular projects. So far, the Ubi project has attracted $136,000 in “pledges,” more than four times the original goal of $36,000.

Mr. Grebler says the decision to use Kickstarter was inspired by a project called Twine, a device designed to read acceleration or temperature data, and stream it back to the source.

“It blew us away that this concept of Internet of Things was easy,” he said in a recent interview. “Kickstarter is where we got a lot of our inspiration and it is an appropriate place to put something up. Kickstarter is not only a way to fund a project but follow what is happening out there.”

People who pledge more than $189 get at least one Ubi – the more they contribute, the more units they receive – when it is shipped later this year. Those who give less will get backer-only updates and early access to purchase an Ubi.

Mr. Grebler says the money will go toward manufacturing, software development and testing, and safety approval. The funding, he adds, reduces risk until the founders decide what to do in terms of financing Ubi’s future growth.

In addition to the overwhelming financial support, Mr. Grebler said the three engineers, whose day jobs involve working for Markham, Ont.-based Quanser, have been approached by other device makers looking to help with product development, as well as companies inquiring about selling the device.

So how did the idea for Ubi materialize?

Mr. Grebler said he, Mr. Abdossalami and Mr. Fotoohi spent a lot of time thinking about the “next big thing.” About a year ago, they started to throw around some ideas for futuristic computers and concepts.

What would a computer look like in five to 10 years, and could it become invisible so people would be able to interact with it without thinking they were using a machine?

Another motivation was their exploration of the most natural way for people to interact with a computer. “Traditionally, you use a keyboard, which is not a natural way to interact,” Mr. Grebler says. “When we talk, we use voice and body language. Ubi includes these main factors.

“The voice activation is the voice, and body language is the multi-coloured LEDs that reflect how it is being used. What is the natural way to interact with computers to engage the Internet? That is where Ubi comes in.”

A key part of what makes Ubi possible are the advancements in voice-recognition technology. Mr. Grebler says a lot of companies, including industry heavyweights such as Apple and Google, have been making voice-recognition technology increasingly user-friendly.

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, which helps startup and entrepreneurs jump-start their marketing activities. Mark has worked with fourstartupsBlanketware, b5Media,PlanetEyeandSysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail,BloombergNews and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh and the meshmarketingconferences.

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