Google Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai apparently has mesh networking on the brain. He mentioned it twice March 9 during an on-stage interview at the SXSW (South by Southwest) film and technology festival in Austin, Texas.
Pichai is in charge of Android, Chrome, Google Apps and even the company’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, which is working on modular phones and digital tattoos, projects that were acquired from Motorola, but will not be sold with the rest of the mobile device company to Lenovo. He was speaking with entrepreneur and writer John Battelle.
The “digital tattoo” idea is really a flexible, durable electronic sticker with a mini power supply, microphone and wireless transceiver.
During that conversation, Pichai announced a forthcoming wearable computing SDK and said that wearable devices “need a mesh layer and a data layer by which they can come together.” He gave the example of a “smart jacket” as something Google would need to support in the future.
He mentioned mesh networking again in the context of home automation. When asked about the company’s recent acquisition of Nest, which makes smart thermostats and talking smoke detectors, he said that Nest devices could be part of a “mesh layer” Google may be working on.
A mesh networking topology is one in which each node in the network can also relay data to other nodes. Mesh networks enable ad hoc networks and also self-healing networks—like the Internet—where a missing, damaged or offline node causes the data to route-around the problem.
In the context of future home automation, for example, you might turn off your home sprinkler system from work using your smartphone. The Internet could relay the command to your home WiFi network, which would relay it to your smart smoke detector, which would relay it to your smart toaster, which would relay it to your smart external lighting system, which would relay it to the sprinkler. There is no need for the sprinkler controller to be within range of WiFi. If the toaster disconnects, it would instead route via the lamp. This is an over-simplified example, but you get the idea.
It’s reasonable to assume, also, that the “mesh layer” for wearables is the same layer, or at least can interconnect with, the “mesh layer” for home automation. Both these categories of device should be able to connect with various sensors around the house and on the user’s physical person, say embedded into the “smart jacket” Pichai suggested in his comments.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen hints of Google’s intention to explore mesh networking in home automation applications.
A little over a year ago, Google released the 4.2.2 update to Android. Sharp-eyed sleuths noticed a telling comment in the code: “Allows access to the loop radio ([email protected] mesh network) device.” Google rolled out its [email protected] initiative, a play for home automation, at the company’s annual developers’ conference, Google I/O, nearly three years ago.
Why Google Is Working on Home Mesh Networking
That’s not much information. But combined with Pichai’s comments, it appears that Google is planning something big around mesh networking for home automation. We may hear more about it at this year’s Google I/O in June.
This reference to a “mesh layer” for both home automation and wearable computing got me thinking about the commonalities between the two from Google’s perspective. Although these are very different categories from the consumer’s perspective, they’re no doubt viewed as very similar from Google’s viewpoint in the following four ways:
1. Ad hoc networking. Both home automation devices and wearable computing devices need to detect, connect and participate fluidly with wireless networks, including at least WiFi, Bluetooth and whatever Google is working on for mesh networking.
2. Radical and unpredictable hardware form factors. In both cases, Google is faced with the challenge of cultivating an app ecosystem for devices that may or may not have a screen, may or may not be mobile, may or may not run on batteries and may or may not have microphones or speakers. Even Pichai’s two examples show the range—smart watches and smart jackets.
3. Voice command interface; cards interface. Some home automation and wearable devices will, however, have direct user interfaces and these have to include either voice command interface, cards interface (as does Google Glass) or both.
4. Need to interface with many arbitrary sensors. Even in these early days, it’s apparent that wearable computing is intimately connected with the quantified self, which means body sensors for measuring heart rate and other vital signs. The same goes for home automation; Google’s Nest thermostat, for example, is based entirely on a temperature sensor and the Nest smoke detectors rely on multiple sensors. Fast forward a few years and homes, clothing, cars and everything else will contain multiple sensors from which data needs to be extracted and ultimately delivered to both home automation and wearable devices.
And, really, the larger categorization for home automation gadgets, wearable computers and sensor is the Internet of things, a category that encompasses not only consumer products, but enterprise, manufacturing, government, healthcare—you name it.
To me, the most exciting prospect in all this Kremlinology is that a powerful company like Google is preparing to build two (presumably) major app ecosystems around mesh networking.
It also suggests possible commonality for developers and even hardware makers around home automation and wearable computing. For example, an app built for a lamp to turn it off and change the light color with a voice command might easily be ported and become a smartwatch app, if both run a similar version of Android and both communicate using similar standards.
It’s early days and this is a lot of speculation. But Google’s hints at a mesh-networked future for both home automation and wearable computing are a promising development.