In a small apartment just a couple blocks from the waterfront in downtown Seattle, windows looking south over the Alaskan Way Viaduct usually afford a view of Mount Rainier. Clouds kept the mountain hidden during a visit this week. The home’s bed and several storage compartments were also out of sight.
The one-bedroom apartment on University Street, in a building called Cyrene, looks like you’d imagine many do in Seattle these days — sleek and spare, and kind of tiny. But it’s a little extra minimalist thanks to a smart-home invention that has created space where there would normally be furniture.
San Francisco-based Bumblebee Spaces is in Seattle to demo its signature Bumblebee bed and smart storage cabinets that comprise a system for making “space for what matters.”
This is no ordinary furniture showroom. And this is not an old-school Murphy bed, folded up into a cabinet, but rather a modern answer that uses depth sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning, an app-based control panel, industrial-grade straps and electric motors to raise a bed off the floor and tuck it overhead on the ceiling.
As homes and apartments become smarter, with the addition of voice-activated gadgets and appliances and so on, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re becoming any bigger, especially in crowded urban environments.
The founders of Bumblebee want to address that issue, by removing objects from the living equation that are not used at all times, and giving people more room to move around. So they took the product approach to houses.
“You look at products like Apple Watch — there’s a ton of features packed inside, like sensors and hardware and batteries and all these various parts packaged within a small space,” said Bumblebee co-founder and CEO Sankarshan Murthy, who previously worked on the Apple product he referenced. “But as a user you never see that. You only see this large screen and this great UX that you interact with. And we want to do the same thing for the home where all the functions are packed in and you don’t look at them all the time. You don’t play with them all the time. It only comes to you when you need it and we want to give the floor space, the luxury of space, back to the user.”
In the Seattle apartment, which measures just 514 square feet, the bed and storage mechanisms have been mounted in what would be considered the apartment’s living room. White in color like the ceiling and walls, they practically disappear along the 9-foot ceilings. An iPad mounted on the wall nearby serves as the nerve center, and takes information from garage-door-like depth sensors mounted high on walls facing the living room.
Activating the proper display on the touch screen turns on lights around the perimeter of the bed. The sensors make sure no one is standing beneath it — if they are it won’t lower — and soon the bed begins to come down, supported by seat-belt-type straps at each corner. In about 10 seconds, there is a queen-size bed, with comforter and pillows, sitting on the rug where there had been nothing. Push the button again, and the bed rather quietly rises back overhead.
Co-founder and COO Prahlad Athreya said that studies have shown that when it comes to space usage in the home, 40 percent of the footprint gets the majority of active usage. The rest of the footprint — like space sitting beneath your bed — lies dormant.
“We’re paying for all this heating, cooling, decorative area we’re rarely using,” Athreya said. “It’s not just the space under the bed, it’s a circulating area that you need around the bed, and the closet, the area to go in and out. All those things add up. And before you know it, you’re losing a lot of space.”
With the bed on the ceiling in a tiny Seattle apartment, a studio suddenly becomes roomier during certain times of the day, or a 1-bedroom becomes a 2-bedroom — or at least now has a more attractive guest set-up. Kids gain room to play, or a room becomes a more manageable space for entertaining during a party.
Getting the bed out of the way is genius enough, but the technologically smart capabilities of Bumblebee are utilized mainly through an inventory system that gets even more stuff stored away — and makes it easy to find and retrieve, again via the touchscreen.
AI is used to catalog and keep track of items each time they are added to or removed from a certain storage compartment. In the demo apartment, four of them were lined alongside the bed and raised and lowered quickly, but not all the way to the floor. At about waist height, a homeowner can look inside and add a range of stuff that would otherwise create clutter in a small home or be stuffed into drawers or furniture taking up floor space.
Games, books, water bottles, electronic devices, sports equipment — it is all photographed and identified by Bumblebee’s software. And, the system learns over time if you’re not using something. That tennis racket hasn’t been touched in quite a while, here’s a nudge to find out if you forgot about it. Do you even like tennis anymore? All of that data and inventory stays with the user and system.
“When you look at what a home is very fundamentally, it’s like piles of stuff and clutter everywhere. And access to all that stuff, that’s what makes the home. Like for example, that key chain needs to go into a bowl and that bowl needs its own side table. That side table takes up footprint. It all adds to, ‘Where did I put my stuff?’ So instead, the thought is if we can put it away and it comes to you only when you need it — it’s smart, it understands, it optimizes your inventory.”
There are opt-in features which rely on the cloud, but the system, which plugs into the wall, does not rely on an internet connection. And if power is lost, the 265-pound bed won’t come crashing to the ground, thanks to a self-locking hoist built into the bed mechanically.
Bumblebee Spaces, which got off the ground in 2017, has raised $4.7 million through a seed round and currently employs eight people, including software, hardware, and engineering personnel. The company is shipping product right now to some beta testers, but plans to start scaling behind official product in the coming year. Pricing will match expectations around what one would pay for traditional furniture or to build closets, etc.
The apartment at Cyrene in Seattle is even slated to go on the market soon, with the Bumblebee installation as part of the selling point.
While big and growing cities like Seattle, San Francisco and others continue to grapple with housing issues related to geographic space and density and so forth, the construction of more smaller spaces is often cited as a way to help ease the crunch.
Bumblebee wants in on that precious space.
“I don’t expect the home to be empty, minimalist, bare bones, clinical … almost nothing,” Murthy said. “In fact, I see home to be much more poetic. It just, it looks like a beautiful living room and then it becomes a beautiful bedroom and then it becomes a beautiful closet, it just transforms from one beautiful space to another beautiful space.”