How Google wants to control your home

20 February 2014


For years, people have spoken with great conviction and excitement about a big surge towards pervasive, high tech home automation. If you look at the way microprocessor technology and the internet have crept into every other facet of our lives - and at how obsessed most of us are with comfort, convenience and efficiency (particularly at home) it's been a safe conclusion to draw for as long as anyone's drawn it.

For all the talk though, sophisticated home automation's still conspicuously absent from the mainstream. Beyond a half decent security system, 'proper' home automation mostly only happens in the form of fully integrated systems in the glitzier suburbs, or in the houses of those with a serious technical itch and a compulsion to tinker. For everyone else,  it stops at a timer for the sprinkler system, or a sensor light on the porch...

Amazing as it is, there's still no household name in home automation. Nothing you'd assume your grandparents might've heard of, much less something Nan would be fearless enough to have a crack at without believing she'll burn the house down if she pushes the wrong button.

That certainly looks to be changing though. Google's just paid a phenomenal $3.2 billion dollars for a company called NEST - a company best known for designing clever, human-friendly thermostats and smoke alarms. For that kind of money (and particularly when you notice all the recent robotics acquisitions by Google's science fiction driven Google X division), you can bet that they've got some big plans in the pipeline, and that we're set to see some seriously impressive new home automation products appearing very soon.


Sugary ergonomics and mass appeal

Ten years ago, I spent many a late night cultivating a wicked nerd tan under the dim glow of a cheap lamp, messing around with config files and BIOS settings, angrily rolling back drivers, discovering pinched IDE cables and generally learning the hard way about just how awful computers really are when you get to know them.

I barely remember the last time I opened a registry editor though. Desktop computers have practically been superceded by tablets and smartphones (or at the very least, notebooks) - and consequently, far, far more people are addicted to their screens.

Yes - that's partly down to our primal urges to tend pixellated e-farms and showboat online like drunken debutantes through social media. But the most compelling reason that people have accepted personal computing technology into their private lives though, is because technology companies - particularly the likes of Apple - have put a lot of thought and effort into concocting potent, sugary blends of clever ergonomics, marketing and industrial design.  Compelling, human-friendly blends sold in consumable chunks, which are now starting to pop up quite a bit in home automation products - like NEST's smoke alarms and thermostats, for example.

The iPad that sits on the arm of my sofa is a very different beast to the frankencomputer I used to wrestle with ten years ago. A thick, near-impenetrable veneer of abstraction lies between its cheerful user interface and any sign of the dark tangle of headaches that lurks beneath. The advertising for this stuff is subtle and loaded with little psychological triggers, and everyone just wants one because, goddamnit they just do. Even grandparents aren't scared of iPads.

The home automation gurus in our office are adamant that there'll still be a need for skilled people to install and configure new devices, and while I'm not so sure about that, at the very least by law in Australia anything that requires hard wiring has to be done by an electrician. 

In order for this new wave of home automation toys that Google and others are marching up on the horizon to readily charm their way into our living rooms, they'll need not only to be offered in accesible, affordable portions, but they'll also need to have this kind of innate purity and effortless ergonomic appeal, straight from the shelf. They'll be intelligently configuring themselves with sensors, data and assumptions gleaned from our activities - just like NEST products already do. 

Plenty of successful technology and consumer electronics companies understand that technical complexity and configuration grief are a huge turnoff for most people - Google's certainly no exception.


The internet of things

Catchy, isn't it? If you're interested in automation (or just technology), you've probably heard the term 'the internet of things' - or IoT, if you're into peppy acronyms... You're going to hear this raging buzzword an awful lot from now on, I guarantee it.

If you haven't heard that phrase before and you haven't already guessed, it refers - as a generic term - to devices of any shape and purpose which can communicate and be controlled over the internet. Shoes, garage doors, fridges, lights, whatever. The CEO of Cisco Systems, which is also betting heavily on the 'internet of things', estimates that the size of this market is likely to be a staggering $19 trillion over the next few years.

These devices already exist all over the place - most in industrial or commercial settings for now. A few of the existing home appliances with internet connections are completely cheesy and premature (e.g. remote controlled ovens that allow you to play games while you're baking), but many do make more sophisticated and worthy use of the technology.

Some air conditioners, for example, are now sold with demand response technology that can be controlled through smart meters by your power company to help prevent suburb-wide rolling blackouts during heatwaves (e.g. 'PeakSmart' enabled aircons in Queensland). That hasn't taken off in a big way yet, but the systems are still quite fresh, and generous government rebates may help to sweeten that offering.

Small low-energy bluetooth (BLE) technology will find its way into all kinds of things too, allowing appliances to be activated or signals to be sent when certain 'events' happen or when people or certain other things are near - or to be located if they move from wherever they're supposed to be. Tile and StickNFind are two basic examples of where BLE's getting its start in homes.


Things that talk to things

NEST, the company that's just been bought by Google, offers thermostats that 'learn' in order to cut your power bills (which they estimate have collectively saved about 2 billion kWh to date), and smoke / carbon monoxide alarms that can talk to those thermostats to cut off your gas heater if it's likely that there's a CO leak somewhere, among other things.

If you've ever had to turn around and drive home in a fit of anxiety because you weren't sure if you'd locked a door or left the stove on you'll understand why this is useful. It's the interoperability of these connected devices, and the ability to relate data that makes the concept of a well connected home most interesting. There are a few systems already available which bind together new 'connected' appliances (i.e. gateways), like SmartThings and NinjaSphere - and cooperative alliances being formed to ensure interoperability between different devices from different brands (like the Internet of Things Consortium).

Google doesn't belong to any of these groups or consortiums yet though, and there's a land grab on between a few tech giants and collectives to offer the means to 'control' everything. For a lot of reasons Google will probably develop its own closed systems so that it owns the data it collects from you and your home. It's hard not to feel that the combination of Google's existing products, formidable R&D focus, security smarts and the huge amount of information that Google's already privvy to about everyone's movements, interests and deepest inner-most sentiments gives it a very healthy head start on any of the groups it's competing with to control our living rooms. It's also worth remembering that Google's making self-driving cars, and all kinds of other jaw-dropping robotic toys that are only being spoken about in whispers for now.


Connecting the home to the person

The same people who are telling us to brace for a home automation revolution are also telling us that it'll be accompanied by a revolution in 'wearable' technology. Google Glass is a great example of that. The off-the-cuff consensus at the moment is that Google Glass is for yuppie wankers - but in the 80's  pretty much everyone said the exact same thing about mobile phones, with the same level of contempt.

In all likelihood, much crow will be eaten.

Analysts are estimating that the market for wearable technology is likely to be worth about $12b within the next 5 years. Patents filed by Google for a head-mounted system like Google Glass show that they're hoping to use it as a kind of Terminator-style augmented reality control system, which brings up options and information about household appliances when you look at them.

As well as being a lot of fun to use and making you feel like a cyborg, wearable computers will offer a new level of insight for whoever controls the data into how we move around and how we live - because everything you do will be recorded. Wearables will hook into your vital signs, rhythms and habits (ostensibly to keep an eye on your health), and let whoever's collecting this data will have unprecedented insights into how people live and behave. 


What's really in it for Google?

A lot of people think of Google as a search company - and while that's completely understandable, it's the sophistication and success of Google's advertising and data mining systems that pay for all the private jets and hulking megayachts.

Google mightn't make its money back on sales of well-designed little products to make your lights dim when you leave the room or your curtains talk to the bureau of meteorology - they'll be cheap. In fact, there's a possibility that they'll only make a pittance on whatever shiny, over-the-counter hardware it comes up with.

Where Google will make money, though, is through knowing even more about how you live, and relating that 'real' data to the rest of the data it's got about you (through Gmail, your web browsing preferences, Google Maps etc.). At the very least, this kind of knowledge will make Google's advertising systems vastly more effective, targeted and valuable.

Over the next few years, expect a lot of conversations about what privacy's truly worth in terms of comfort, convenience and safety. And possibly about the many different ways one can interpret the word 'evil'.


I'm the editor of BUILD. Big fan of efficient housing and new technologies, still dreaming of one day living in a very elaborate cave...