Google’s Plan to Take Android Everywhere

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Call it real-world domination, or simply Android Everywhere: Google unveiled two initiatives at its I/O developer conference on Tuesday that hint at plans to take Android well beyond the mobile and tablet device space.

The Arduino-powered Android ADK.

The first part of the puzzle was the unveiling of the Android Accessory Mode, which makes it possible for third-party developers to build hardware accessories that can communicate with Android devices via USB. One of the applications demonstrated by Google included game controllers for Android devices, and companies exhibiting at I/O showcased the use of Google’s reference Accessory Development Kit (ADK) to play music, grow plants and control robots.

All of this may admittedly sound pretty geeky, and Google was clearly targeting hardware hackers at I/O, giving away development kits that are based on the Arduino open source hardware. However, you have to put Android accessories in context to see where the company is really going with this; and that’s where Android@Home comes in.

The gateway used by Lighting Science to connect an Android tablet to mesh-networked LEDs.

Google used part of its Tuesday keynote to preview Android@Home as an initiative to connect all kinds of appliances in the home. The company teamed up with LED company Lighting Science Group to develop an open source wireless protocol that can be used to roll out inexpensive hardware for mesh networking.

Lighting Science wants to bring the first networking-enabled LED light bulbs to the market by the end of the year, and consumers will be able to control these LEDs with their Android devices, thanks to a hub that helps to interconnect Wi-Fi devices with the new networking protocol.

I talked to Android@Home Engineering Director, Joe Britt, and Android@Home Director of Hardware, Matt Hershenson, after the announcement, and Britt told me that Android@Home was really just a way of taking accessories one step further:

“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 dish washer a potential accessory?”

Ultimately, said Britt, it all came down to one question: “How can you reach out to every single device in the world and interact with it?”

Granted, some of the things Android@Home is debuting with have been done before. Smart home initiatives are nothing new, and wireless protocols like ZigBee and Insteon have been used before to control devices as well as measure energy use. Hershenson and Britt told me that LED lighting just seemed like the easiest use case to bring to market, something that consumers will understand right away.

However, combine these technologies with the existing Android developer ecosystem, and things are going to get interesting. Android devices will automatically detect connected accessories, whether these are plugged in via USB or connected through a mesh network, and give apps the ability to utilize their functionality.

This opens up countless possibilities for developers, which in turn will be a big boon for Android devices. Just imagine for a second that the Netflix app on your Google TV will be able to control the mood lighting in your living room based on the type of movie you are watching, turning to warm colors for romantic comedies and entirely dark for horror flicks.

A Tungsten music player reacting controlled via NFC. Once the CD touched the player, it automatically started playing the album.

There will also be entirely new categories of applications, designed to specifically run on devices that don’t have displays, or work with different types of input. One prototype device demonstrated during the I/O keynote was dubbed Tungsten, a music player that interacts with the user through NFC.

Bringing Android to all these devices will undoubtedly change Android itself, make it more ubiquitous, add new types of interactions and even new forms of commerce. “There is an endless realm of possibilities available,” said Hershenson, and Britt added:

“I think of it as spheres, expanding outward. In the middle, you got the core Android functionality, and then we are layering on, and expanding out the reach of Android to enable more and more diverse applications.”

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