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October 19, 2016Zoey Collier
Landon Borders, Director of Connected Devices at Big Ass Solutions, still chuckles when he tells customers how the company got its name. Founder Carey Smith started his company back in 1999, naming it HVLS Fan Company. Its mission was to produce a line of high-volume, low-speed (HVLS) industrial fans. HVLS Fan Company sold fans up to 24-feet in diameter for warehouses and fabrication mills.
“People would always say to him ‘Wow, that’s a big-ass fan.’ They wanted more information, but they never knew how to reach us,” says Borders. So the founder listed the company in the phone book twice, both as HVLS Fan Company and Big Ass Fans. Guess which phone rang more often? “In essence, our customers named the company.”
Today the parent company is Big Ass Solutions. It still owns Big Ass Fans. It also builds Big Ass Lights and Haiku Home, a line of smart residential lighting and fans. Now with an Alexa skill, the company’s customers can control their devices using only their voice.
Haiku Home is where Alexa comes into the picture.
Big Ass Fans (BAF) is a direct-sales company. As such, it gets constant and direct feedback about customers' satisfaction and product applications. BAF found people were using its industrial-grade products in interesting commercial and home applications. It saw an exciting new opportunity. So in 2012, BAF purchased a unique motor technology, allowing it to create a sleek, low-profile residential fan.
That was just the starting point for BAF’s line of home products. The next year, BAF introduced Haiku with SenseME, the world’s first smart fan.
What’s a smart fan? Borders says it first has to have cutting-edge technology. Haiku Home fans include embedded motion, temperature and humidity sensors. A microprocessor uses that data to adjust the fan and light kits to the user's tastes. The device also has to be connected, so it includes a Wi-Fi radio.
The microprocessor and Wi-Fi radio make the SenseME fan a true IoT device. Customers use a smartphone app to configure the fan’s set-it-and-go preferences. But after that, why should you need an app?
Borders remembers discussions in early 2015 centered on people getting tired of smartphone apps. Using apps were a good starting point, but the company found some users didn’t want to control their fan with their smartphone. BAF felt voice was definitely the user interface of the future. When they saw Amazon heavily investing in the technology, they knew what the next step would be.
They would let customers control their fans and lights simply by talking to Alexa.
Alexa presented an irresistible opportunity. BAF believes in investing in R&D, and it maintains a talented engineering and development team. The team started by prototyping with the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). Later they got involved with early versions of what eventually became the Smart Home Skill API. Borders says BAF helped Amazon develop the utterances to allow customers to naturally control their fans.
Kristjen Kjems, user experience designer at Big Ass Fans, says fan interactions are different than with lights. To find out what customers would say, Kjems did some qualitative “guerilla” testing. He put random customers in a room with BAF’s existing fans and lights. He told them the devices were voice-enabled and to “go crazy” trying to get them to react. He recorded and analyzed the most common utterances, as well as results of written questionnaires. He then recommended those phrases to the smart home team.
He says working with the Alexa team was a great experience. He points to how transparent and accessible they were during BAF’s smart home skill development. Having prototyped with ASK, the BAF team was able to complete its smart home skill in minimal time. Kjems says, “It’s actually been surprisingly painless.”
BAF’s smart home skill eliminates the need for a phone or a wall switch to control Big Ass Fan devices. For example, Borders always says “Alexa, turn my Living Room Haiku to Speed 6” after getting home from his morning run.
And BAF’s customers praise the newfound convenience. Being a direct-sales company, BAF has an open dialog with its customer. Borders says that customer adoption of the skill has been quicker than expected.
As for its future developments for voice, Big Ass Fans sees its utility and growing popularity. Borders says whatever voice technology brings tomorrow, BAF will be part of it. “We certainly won’t be resting on our Big Ass laurels!”
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