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When Logitech announced this week that it was discontinuing its universal remote controls, Caavo co-CEO Ashish Aggarwal knew that the quiet days for his company would be over. Practically overnight, he started to get countless requests from dealers looking to replace Logitech's devices with Caavo's remote controls. "We are the only people left standing," Aggarwal told Protocol.
Only, Caavo isn't ready to meet that demand just yet. The company's supply chain has been severely disrupted by the pandemic, which effectively brought its retail business to a complete stop. "We have been out of stock for almost a year," Aggarwal said.
And while Caavo is currently gearing up to introduce a slightly upgraded consumer device next month, it also began to embrace a whole new line of business last year, repositioning its hardware as the heart of a TV-centric technology solution for senior living facilities. This pivot was in part the result of COVID-19, but it's also reflective of larger changes in TV and streaming, and the potential for TV screens to be more than just entertainment devices.
Checking in on Grandma
When Caavo's retail business all but disappeared last year, its developers tried to stay busy by experimenting with a number of different projects. The company developed a short-lived co-viewing app, and began to test combinations of its hardware with webcams, chat and other social features.
At the same time, Caavo executives noticed that some consumers were starting to use its hardware in unexpected ways. Early adopters had set up their parents with Caavo, and were using the company's cloud back end to troubleshoot TVs from afar during the lockdown. "It was what we internally called a 'remote remote,'" Aggarwal said.
Caavo began doubling down on this idea and started to develop an entire software platform based on its hardware for senior living facilities. The new system, which is currently being piloted in a few facilities, allows residents to control their TV with Caavo's remote, launch video chats with family members on the TV screen and access messages and events calendars for their specific community.
Family members can connect to their Caavo via mobile app for video chats, and share photos and videos. Senior living community administrators can use the device for wellness checks, and even connect the system to safety alert buttons, health sensors and more. The ability to bring video chat to senior living communities has especially been a much-requested feature during a time of social isolation, according to Aggarwal. "We are seeing an extremely huge pull in that direction," he said.
TV is being disrupted, down to the remote
When Caavo first launched its universal remote control in 2018, it did so with a simple message: TV was too complicated, and streaming was, in many ways, making things worse. Consumers had a growing number of devices connected to their TVs, including cable boxes, streaming sticks and game consoles, all with their own remote controls.
What's more, streaming was incredibly fragmented. Due to a conflict between Amazon and Google, there was no YouTube app for Fire TV devices. Apple users could only access the company's services on its Apple TV device, and a bunch of new streaming services were only launching on a small subset of platforms. If you really wanted access to everything, you needed at least two streaming devices connected to your TV.
Three years later, the world has changed a lot. Google and Amazon have made peace, Apple has licensed Apple TV+ and AirPlay to its competitors and the big streaming services have become available on almost every device. Plus, most streaming platforms have begun to abstract content from the app layer, making it easier to discover individual shows with universal search and recommendations.
As a result, there's a lot less need for some of the technology that Caavo was building. The company will deemphasize its own universal search feature going forward, Aggarwal said, and generally focus less on content. However, he also argued that consumers still are dealing with a lot of complexity, especially if they have A/V receivers or game consoles as part of their setup — a classic use case for universal remote controls.
Caavo plans to address some of those changes with the next iteration of its retail device, which will feature a similar look but upgraded internals. "In our mind, it is a subtle change," Aggarwal said.
The bigger change is that the company is now playing in two markets, and building out a B2C business with its new platform for senior living facilities. Caavo has been staffing up in India for this move, and raised some additional capital in December, bringing the total raised thus far to nearly $40 million.
And while Caavo will initially focus on the senior living community market, the company is also eyeing other hospitality industry opportunities, with the ultimate goal of turning TV screens into central hubs for entertainment, communication and more. "We started the company with the goal of connecting people," Aggarwal said. "The universal remote was just one piece of the puzzle."
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.