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Google Wants to Control Your Home

The company’s mobile operating system can now control everything from lighting to gym equipment.

Google’s Android operating system may have been created for phones and refined for tablets, but the OS is set to move beyond the bounds of mobile devices.

Domestic helper: Joe Britt introduces “Tungsten” devices at I/O in San Francisco (above, top). The prototype “Tungsten” device (bottom) enables an Android phone to control home appliances.

Today, Google announced a new class of Android devices for the home during the opening keynote at its annual I/O developer’s conference in San Francisco. These devices—dubbed “Tungstens”—act as an intermediary between an Android phone or tablet and a suitably enabled home appliance. They would allow users to remotely control everything from lighting to refrigerators.

The company demonstrated how a Tungsten could make playing a game on an Android tablet more immersive: explosions and gunfire set the special lights in the room flickering with every blast. New software that makes it easier for Android devices and their apps to interface with other devices and objects, including home automation equipment, was also demonstrated.

“We’d like to think of Android as the operating system for your home,” said Joe Britt, who is leading the Android@Home project. “We’re extending the Android OS to include new services that allow Android devices to discover, connect, and communicate with devices in the home.”

Britt showed off two conceptual Tungsten devices to illustrate Google’s vision for Android and its apps taking control of the home. One took the form of a six-inch-square box with lights along its edges, and the other was a white sphere roughly the same size. “A Tungsten device runs the Android OS and the Android@Home framework,” said Britt. “It’s always on, and always connected to the cloud.”

Britt called these two Tungsten devices “reference hardware,” a term used to describe prototypes intended to inspire other companies to design their own more refined devices. Because Android is open-source software, Google will make available all the hardware specifications needed for others to build their own Tungsten devices.

Tungsten devices use Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet and other devices, as well as a new, low-power wireless standard of Google’s own invention to link with other devices. The gaming demo involved Tungsten-controlled LED lightbulbs made by the company LightingScience, which had the Google wireless standard built in. Britt also hinted that accessories would be released to enable existing devices to come under the control of Android@Home.

During the demo, a Tungsten device with a built-in RFID reader was used to interact with CD cases with RFID tags. When a CD case was touched to the Tungsten prototype, a chime sounded. “That means the entire CD has been added to my library,” said Britt. A second tap of the CD caused the device to play the album, streaming the music from Google’s new cloud music locker.

Britt appealed to developers to create apps that take control of devices in the home. “You could make an alarm app that slowly ramps up the light in the room and plays your favorite music,” he said. “Imagine using Android@Home to control an irrigation system to create a real-world Farmville app. If you lose the game, your garden dies.”

Britt’s colleague Matt Hershenson, director of hardware for Android, introduced a new feature coming soon to the most recent release of Android, Honeycomb, due out later this year. The new feature is a software protocol that lets the operating system connect with many different devices.

“What if your Android devices could integrate more fully with your workout?” he asked as a colleague stripped down to cycling shorts, mounted an exercise bike, and plugged his Android phone into it.

The new software protocol allowed the bike to open an app that used the pedaling of the bike to control a simple game. “If the phone didn’t already have a compatible app, the bike would send the phone to the market to download it,” said Hershenson.

A second, larger-scale demo saw a tablet used to control a 5,000-pound wooden tilt table large enough to park a car on. The tilt of an Android tablet was fed to motors so that the table mirrored the tablet’s movement, allowing a user to steer a bowling ball around a maze.

The forthcoming Honeycomb refresh will also support all existing USB devices out of the box. One consequence, as demonstrated at the conference, is that game controllers can be used with Android devices, bringing tablets and connected TV devices running Android into competition with consoles and gaming PCs.

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