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Ambient Devices shifts focus from sports scores and weather forecasts to energy usage

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 23, 2012 08:15 AM

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After more than a decade of existence and just over $10 million in funding, Ambient Devices is still one of those companies that has generated more media buzz than jobs or revenues. The consumer electronics company built umbrellas with handles that glowed blue when it was going to rain, frosted glass orbs that changed color in tandem with major stock market moves, and desktop sports scoreboards. Ambient pioneered the idea that all kinds of devices — not just laptops and phones — would communicate with wireless networks to bring you information.

Two of Ambient's three founders have gone on to other ventures — David Rose now runs Vitality, which makes intelligent prescription pill bottles, and Ben Resner was developing a new kind of information display for cars when I caught up with him last January. Former Ambient product development chief Nabeel Hyatt runs the Harvard Square office of Zynga, the social gaming company that went public last year. Carl Yankowski, the former Palm and Reebok CEO brought in in 2007 to lead the company, only stuck around for two years.

ghandi.jpgBut the third founder, Pritesh Gandhi, is still there, running a slimmed-down Ambient that he says turned profitable last year. (The company has eight employees.) And this week, he's heading to San Antonio to announce a new focus for the company: digital displays for homes and businesses that will show how much energy they're using, and ideally encourage them to conserve. He'll be showing off new Ambient prototypes as part of the Distributech conference and tradeshow, which brings together utilities and vendors working on "smart grid" technology.

Here's how the new devices work: some utilities now charge consumers more at moments of peak energy demand — like a hot day in August — than days when there's less demand. It's called "time-of-use billing." Gandhi says that no major Massachusetts utilities have started doing it, but "utilities in states like California have realized that the most effective way to alleviate some of the stress on the grid and educate their customers about energy consumption is with variable pricing." When consumers have a display (see below) that shows them how much energy they're using and how much it costs, Gandhi says it can reduce their energy consumption by about 25 percent. And like previous Ambient products, the Energy Joule changes colors to get your attention. When prices are average, it's green. When they're above average, it's yellow. And when prices are at their highest, it's red.

"We think utilities would buy the devices and give them out to their users, or they'd be available at retail locations with a subsidy, not unlike what you see with compact flourescent bulbs today," Gandhi says.

The company has been working for about four years to deploy devices with Pacific Gas & Electric's business customers, Gandhi says, but the new push is about getting the devices into homes. The company has done some pilot consumer testing with Baltimore Gas & Electric, but is hoping to land a large-scale commitment this year.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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