Astro Twists in Its Smart Light Bulbs in Connected Apartments

Xconomy New York — 

For all their promise of transforming homes into something out of Star Trek, connected devices are still trying to find a place in the mainstream.

New York-based Astro, a graduate of the R/GA Accelerator, is building hardware and software that CEO Shaun Springer says could cast “smart homes” in a new light. His company’s platform and line of LED light bulbs, called Twist, is aimed at apartments, not just houses, unlike many other connected devices. “We want to make the smart home accessible to everyone, and lower technical and financial barriers,” Springer says.

Until recently, he and his team were somewhat secretive about sharing details on Twist; during the accelerator’s demo day back in February, he did not show his technology on stage. Now that the smart bulb is further in development, Twist is coming out of the shadows.

Wi-Fi-connected Twist light bulbs can be dimmed or the color tone altered using a wireless dimmer, as well as by iOS devices on the network. The main model of the bulbs has compact speakers built inside, which use Apple’s AirPlay protocol to stream music. The speaker-equipped bulbs can be set up to stream synchronized music into different rooms, Springer says.

The speakers, made by Tymphany, must be controlled by smartphones and the like. Twist smart bulbs fit into standard light fixtures, letting users pump streaming music into many different places. “You could put this into a lamp or an overhead light,” he says.

The speakers are discreetly built into the head of each bulb, only visible when looking directly at the top. Springer turned on one of the speakers during our interview and the sound easily filled the room. It was light on the bass but still very clear.

Astro developed the Twist app to control the lights. Users can also use any music app they already have to stream sound through the speakers in the bulbs. That way if someone visits, they will not have to add any software to their smartphones in order to play music through the bulbs, he says.

Springer thinks Twist will appeal to people living in apartments who, for various reasons, cannot install permanent connected devices, which may also be priced and designed for suburban homeowners.

Twist is not the only game in town when it comes to adding “smart” controls to lighting and other home devices. LumiFi developed an app for setting the tone of Wi-Fi-enabled LED bulbs per the user’s mood.

Wink, a spinoff of Quirky, developed a platform for wirelessly controlling different brands of devices in connected homes.

Springer says some companies in the connected home market have gained traction by focusing on suburban homeowners and the home improvement market. Wink, he says, is a significant player in this market, with others on the way. “You’re going to see Amazon getting involved, and Apple coming in with HomeKit,” Springer says, referring to the system under development that will work with iPhones and iPads to control appliances and devices in homes.

There are some trends in smart homes and connected devices, though, which might not make much sense. A frying pan that connects to the Internet might be cool, Springer says, but that has not gotten mainstream consumers excited about this market. “Your light bulb and thermostat have no need to communicate,” he says. So he is not putting Astro’s resources towards integrating Twist with devices such as Nest, even though it might offer a quick a boost in sales.

The idea of Twist came from Springer’s professional experience in electronics and building out equipment to distribute audio throughout his apartment. He also wanted more control over the lighting within his abode. Astro is taking preorders on Twist, with shipments to begin in early 2016.

In April, Astro raised $2.9 million in a seed round that included backers Winklevoss Capital and Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Springer says.

Right now, Astro is focused on creating devices that work smoothly, rather than dabbling in flashy features that the tech industry is still trying to perfect such as voice control, machine learning, or artificial intelligence, Springer says. The company doubled its staff to 10 full-timers since it graduated from the accelerator earlier this year, and it will be hiring as it continues to work on its products—and as the connected devices market evolves. “The smart home isn’t that interesting yet,” Springer says. “It will take years before it’s interesting.”

Twist smart LED bulbs use Apple AirPlay to stream music though the speakers on top. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Twist smart LED bulbs use Apple AirPlay to stream music though the speakers on top. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)