Google’s developer conference this week largely focused on cool machine learning demos, and for the most part, the various presentations felt a little disjointed from any cohesive whole. But for people who care about the smart home, Google’s smart home keynote had a compelling core theme: cleaning up the mess the smart home has become.
Surprisingly, not all of the big news in the smart home keynote related to Matter, the newly renamed Project Connected Home over IP protocol that is supposed to unify the smart home experience. Google also focused on making it easier to get Bluetooth devices onto a network and showed off a new website where consumers can find products that work with Google devices. And it unveiled a new policy that should ensure connected devices are actually safe to connect.
Google also offered developers a sneak peek into the future of the context-aware home. And the company threw a bone to hardcore DIYers frustrated by the end of the Works with Nest program.
Clean-up needed in the smart home aisle!
Before we get to the cool stuff, we should focus on the steps Google is taking to fix the nightmare that the smart home has become. The most obvious is its participation in the Matter protocol. To that end, Google said devices with Thread built in — such as the Nest Wifi, Nest Hub Max, and the second-generation Nest Hub — will become connection points for Matter devices. Additionally, all Nest displays and speakers will be automatically updated to control Matter devices over Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Michele Turner, senior director of Google Smart Home, also told me the most recently available Nest thermostat will work with the Matter protocol. So will the Google Home app, which will act as a potential interface to control Matter devices if the consumer doesn’t want to use the devices’ original app.
Also on the interoperability improvement front was Google’s announcement that it will adopt WebRTC and let other smart home camera makers stream video and audio to Google devices using the open source video protocol. So far, Arlo, Netatmo, Logitech, and Wyze have agreed to participate; the adoption will also require those camera makers to do a little manual integration to make everything work. Amazon uses WebRTC, too, so this move will increase the openness of camera technology. I welcome it, because cameras aren’t yet supported by the Matter protocol. This makes it a bit more likely that your connected camera will work with at least Google or Amazon.
Google also enabled a simple way to connect Bluetooth devices to the Google Home app and various Google smart speakers and displays. For folks who are waiting on Matter, this is great, but it’s also great for anyone looking to quickly connect a few Bluetooth bulbs. Google also reiterated its policies around security, and noted that it’s added a feature I really like: If you want your product to work with Google and integrate with the broader Google Home ecosystem, it will need to pass an annual security check with the company first.
And in the meantime, if it’s a device that controls an appliance or something that could cause damage, that device now needs to be UL-approved or have a similar safety certification. This means your knockoff smart outlets might not work with Google going forward. While that’s a bummer for those of us who like buying cheap gear on Amazon, from a fire safety perspective it’s probably a good thing.
Finally, Google has created a site where you can find smart home products that work with Google and meet its standards. It’s basically a modern version of the old Works With Nest page, which showcased devices that worked with Nest. When Google killed the Works With Nest program in 2019, that page went away. The new page is also integrated with Google Shopping, so it’s even easier to buy anything that strikes your fancy.
The smart home gets more context clues
Once getting devices into the home and working becomes easier, it will be time to make them smarter. To that end, Google touted plans to offer Home and Away routines that automatically trigger based on whether or not a person is in the home. It will offer these routines using a combination of geofencing and the PIR sensor on the Nest thermostats to figure out when someone is actually home. Turner said that Google’s algorithms are very good at figuring out whether someone is home given all the years of experience they’ve had doing it using the Nest thermostat. I’d love to see the Home and Away feature use other sensors, such as those in the Nest displays.
The other exciting news bit about getting better context in the smart home was really more of an aside. In her speech, Turner noted that Google was working with the FiRa Consortium. “UWB is an emerging technology being driven by the FiRa Consortium that we’re excited about as it has great implications for the smart home going forward,” Turner said in her keynote.
The FiRa Consortium is working on a standard that uses ultra-wideband (UWB) for fine-range positioning within a few centimeters. I had focused on its use in more industrial settings when I wrote about the technology back in 2019, but it sounds like Google might be bringing it into the home or consumer settings. This makes sense given that Apple is using its own UWB chip both to deliver some fancy new features for AirTags to locate things as well as a way to provide context with the Home Pod mini, which uses UWB to sense if an iPhone is nearby and if it is, sends relevant content between the two devices.
But fine-grained location offers much more. With fine-grained location, it’s possible to track where people are in relation to their devices and use that information to provide context that can cut down on the types of commands people have to give their home. For example, if I’m next to a lamp and I ask Google to turn on the lamp, it’s likely to guess I mean the one next to me. I can imagine some really cool use cases, which I wrote about back in 2019 as this trend was bubbling up.
Making DIYers happy
Remember when Google killed the Works With Nest program? At the time, the program was an attempt to lock down the number of devices that could access sensors and control Nest products, and to force devices that did try to use or control Nest data or devices to comply with basic security rules. It also caused many smart home integrations, such as those that let a Nest thermostat tell Hue lights that no one was home, to stop working.
Big companies that make smart home devices subsequently adapted and certified their integrations with Google, but hardcore DIYers who wrote their own integrations were left in the lurch. And they’ve now been waiting almost two years for Google to let them use their smart home devices like they used to.
For hardcore DIYers, Google is now allowing developers who want to go back to controlling Nest products to use what it calls its Device Access (I hate the tech convention of branding common phrases for a specific feature or program) console. There are 15,000 hobbyists building Nest integrations, and through this console, they can do so in a private sandbox for their own homes without needing to pass through those annual security checks.
All in, Google is clearly working to make the smart home easier to use, more secure, and more safe, and doing it in a way that tries to bring as many developers along as possible. It’s not going to make everyone happy, but I like where it’s headed.