March 22, 2013

Google Glass Eyes Home Automation

Last month, config files found in Android 4.2.2 hinted that the Android@Home initiative for home automation announced in May 2011 may finally be ready to roll. Now it seems that Google is also planning a homey role for its Google Glass head-mounted display (HMD) computer. Earlier this week, Engadget uncovered a USPTO patent application for a Google Glass-like device that can control devices like refrigerators, espresso makers, TVs, garage doors, alarm and lighting systems, and office appliances.

Google glassSo far, Google Glass has been promoted as a hands-free smartphone, camera, and GPS navigator that uses voice and gesture control. Marketing has emphasized camera use and augmented reality applications in public spaces, assisted by the Siri-like Google Now application. The patent application expands the scope, envisioning that users will keep the glasses on at home to seamlessly orchestrate their digital appliances.

According to the patent application, when the Google Glass-like "HMD" is detected in proximity, a compatible appliance will reveal operating information and potentially enable itself to be controlled via a "virtual control interface." The application mentions a variety of technologies for identification and communication, including the HMD's camera, RFID, IR, QR codes, GPS, acoustic or optical signals, WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, cellular, or NFC.

The appliances will provide information such as control panels or multimedia help either directly or via a remote Internet server. Displayed via augmented reality overlays, the content can change depending what on the appliance the user's camera focuses on. The application cites I/O including gestures, head motions, voice controls, or if all else fails, ye old touchpad. Some actions can be preset and triggered by proximity, as when approaching a garage door.

Patent descriptions don't always match the end product -- or result in any product at all. In this case, however, the described HMD matches up well with the Google Glass "Explorer" prototype. Last month, Google widened its pre-order access to the device via an essay contest. Google execs also revealed that the device should reach consumers by the end of the year for under the current $1,500.

Is Android@Home Back?

The patent description is similar to the home automation scenarios hyped for Android@Home, minus the overlays and in-depth camera integration. In almost two years, however, nothing has come of the project, not even the promised wirelessly controllable light bulbs from Google partner LightingScience. The somewhat related, simultaneously announced Android Open Accessory Development Kit DIY technology for connecting Android phones with Arduino devices has made some progress, but has hardly set the world on fire.

Yet, Android@Home may have a future after all. The config code in Android 4.2.2 is limited to basic lighting controls, but there are also mentions of mesh networking and Google Now support. The Google I/O show on May 13 may reveal more. If Google plans to actively push the technology, it could be used as the underlying framework for future Google Glass home automation applications. The two could fit together well since Android@Home appears to focus on background communications among devices via wireless mesh networks, while the Google Glass patent application is more about user interaction.

Home automation is complicated. That's why the fledgling market is still dominated by comprehensive, all-in-one solutions priced well over $10,000. Although the market is increasingly turning to more affordable Linux-based products, as with the Control4 platform, these are still primarily closed-loop, soup-to-nuts solutions. Other systems that touch on home automation are sold primarily as security or smart-grid energy monitoring systems.

Meanwhile, on the outside looking in, Microsoft's Xbox has been used as a basic home automation device. Various low-end contenders like Belkin's Linux-based WeMo lighting control devices, have focused primarily on integrating with iPhone clients, although an Android-based WeMo app should arrive soon. No matter what happens with Android@Home and Google Glass, more Android-based home automation products are on the way.

Google Glass and Android Compatibility

Google's Project Glass has yet to divulge many technical details about Google Glass. Yet, last month's hands-on report by Joshua Topolsky at The Verge provided a good third-party evaluation of usage.

Unlike most smart watches, including a model Google is developing, according to an FT Times report yesterday, Google Glass is not merely a wirelessly-enabled accessory to a smartphone, but a standalone embedded system. On the prototype, a Bluetooth connected Android or iPhone handset is required for cellular connections, but the device has its own WiFi and GPS chips, and a hardware patent application revealed last month includes an LTE option.

Google Glass is almost certainly based on Android. Yet, in the blog site Cult of Android, Mike Elgan argues that just because Google is based on Android, doesn't mean the final version will run anything that can easily run Android apps. In fact, he suggests, it may well constitute an Android fork.

Earlier this week, Google announced that Chrome project leader Sundar Pichai was taking over from Android creator Andy Rubin as head of Android development. Although many have suggested this is a sign Google will soon merge Android with Chrome OS, there are just as many arguments to suggest otherwise. According to Elgan, Google will not only be happy to continue with two separate operating systems, but may be happy to add a third Linux-based OS with Google Glass.

"The goal of unifying platforms should be subordinated to the goal of perfecting user experiences," writes Elgan. "And if there’s any company skillful at managing multiple, even competing, product organizations and product lines it's Google."

Aside from the usual obstacles facing any new embedded platform, Google Glass faces steep challenges, most notably price and the potential that despite the sleek Yves Behar design, the masses won't find the glasses as fashionable as geeks and supermodels do. Privacy and etiquette issues stemming from the camera could mean trouble, as well. If you can't be sure your conversation partner is not simultaneously recording video, reading their email, or Googling you, paranoia might run rampant.

In The Verge story, Google reps countered the etiquette claims by noting that smartphones are already hampering interpersonal relationships. In other words, with Google Glass, you might at least gain eye contact, although perhaps with only one eye.

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