Time for Google's Android @Home to Make a New Splash

Photograph by Marcel Christ/Gallery Stock

With Google’s annual I/O developer conference just a week away, lots of people are busy trying to figure out what the company is going to announce this year. I’m going to throw my hat in the ring with a bold guess: a second take on Android @Home, Google’s Internet of things-meets home entertainment initiative that never materialized, despite being announced not once, but twice.

I have no inside knowledge on this, I have heard no juicy rumors, so I could be completely wrong. I do think the timing is right for Android @Home.

First, a bit of history. Google initially introduced Android @Home at its Google I/O conference in 2011. Back then, the company painted a picture of a world in which all kinds of household appliances were connected to a home gateway controlled by Android devices. One of the first devices coming to market was supposed to be an Android-connected LED light bulb. The bulb was supposed to be manufactured by Lighting Science and come to market by the end of 2011.

That never happened, and there has since been no official word about the status of the project. Instead, Google introduced the ill-fated Nexus Q at its 2012 Google I/O conference. The music streamer was meant to compete with Sonos and deliver cloud-hosted whole-home audio, but its overwhelmingly negative reception led Google to scrap the project and give away thousands of units for free.

Android @Home is far from dead. Android enthusiasts recently found traces of Android @Home in the Android 4.2.2 update. Some casual searches on LinkedIn reveal that the company isn’t just maintaining the team, but is actively hiring and adding people. There are industrial designers and software engineers “working on Android@Home cloud services,” managers who’ve been working on “Nexus Q and other fun things to come,” and numerous people listing Android@ Home as their current area of work. A bunch of them were hired in 2013.

What are they working on? It’s hard to tell from the résumés alone, and one guy even admits: “My job is so secret, sometimes even I do not know what I do.”

It’s worth pointing out that quite a few list Jawbone as a previous employer, hinting at the possibility of additional audio devices. I’ve also heard that Lighting Science is still working on the LED project, so we might actually see Android-connected light bulbs make a comeback.

Android @Home’s bigger vision has always been to connect everything in your home—not just a single bulb, or a speaker system in your living room. Back in 2011, Android @Home hardware director Joe Britt told me: “In thinking about accessories as devices that surround the phone, we started thinking about how far away from the phone you could migrate. Is a light bulb a potential accessory? Is a dishwasher a potential accessory?”

One of the key pieces to tie all those things together could be Google’s voice recognition. The company’s cloud-based voice recognition features have advanced a lot in the last few years: Voice has become one of the main input methods for Google TV.

These capabilities could be used to control your lighting, play music, or even adjust your thermostat. Check out this cool new demo video, put together by home automation enthusiast Doug Gregory, to get a sense of what’s possible when voice and home automation come together. Gregory didn’t use Android @Home for this demo, but instead relied on a number of different tools.

Google has definitely been looking to utilize voice for Android @Home, as one software engineer professes on LinkedIn: “Deliver speech recognition and natural language processing technologies (context aware, embedded, and online) to the mobile ecosystem. Build client and server side infrastructure for integration across multiple Google products in all languages. Currently working in Google Now, Google Glass, Android@Home and others.”

And here’s a further feature that could set the 2013 version of Android @Home apart from its 2011 roots: Google’s new focus on the knowledge graph and its pretty face that is Google Now. The Google Now app already pushes all kinds of relevant information to your mobile, including the time it will take you to get home and the weather in the city you’re going to visit tomorrow.

Imagine if Google could add the data it gets from your Android @Home devices to the mix: Swipe up on your Android phone and check the settings of your thermostat, get more information about the band that’s been playing on your home stereo system (including tour dates), or check how much money you’re going to spend on electricity this month. It’s a pretty compelling vision. It gets even more interesting once you feed data from your Android @Home devices back to the knowledge graph.

Granted, a pretty UI powered by Google Now cards and voice recognition isn’t all that Android @Home needs to succeed. But both would definitely be big steps to make consumers feel more at home in their connected house.

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