Smartphones really are the ultimate convergence devices. People no longer question whether they’ll replace cameras, digital audio players, portable TVs, handheld gaming consoles, or Sat Navs. The question now is – how many more things can they replace? Once you reach the stage where you’ve outlaid big cash for a seriously powerful pocket computer, it just makes sense to keep adding more potential uses. That has been the foundation of the app explosion. It is what has made smartphones the fastest selling tech in human history.
There’s one exciting frontier that Android has yet to really penetrate and that’s home automation. If you cast your mind back to Google I/O in 2011 you might remember Android@home and some talk about the mesh network. Sadly, an affordable Android home automation system did not immediately hit the market. In fact, we heard nothing more about it. Before you get too despondent, it looks like references to Google messing with a mesh network and Android@home have been spotted in version 4.2.2 of Android. Fingers crossed we might get some kind of exciting announcement at Google I/O in May.
The potential of Android is massive and as the user base grows it becomes more and more likely that Google, device manufacturers, app developers, and other companies will seek to explore new possibilities for the platform. We’re already seeing some signs of this as manufacturers look to bake in features that were once delivered by innovative apps.
My first inkling of what Android might do within the home came with an app called GMote. It allows your Android phone to act as a remote control for your computer. If you’ve got an HTPC setup or you use your PC for music then it’s an ideal way of controlling your content. You could also use it to awkwardly browse your files and they eventually added the ability to stream music to the phone.
In the last couple of years the remote control idea has really taken off alongside the chatter about the second screen and so now we’ve got loads of options. I use the Netflix app as a remote control for the service on my big TV. You can control what you’re watching and you can also browse for more content without skipping out of what’s on. I use the Skifta app to stream home videos and photos to my big screen. There are many other examples of similar apps like Xbox SmartGlass, which is offering interactive second screen content to accompany what you are watching or playing. It’s early days right now, but you can see the potential.
Manufacturers can certainly see it. Samsung has its own AllShare software to stream and share various kinds of content. When Sony showed off the Xperia Tablet Z the user was able to tap on an NFC speaker and have the music from the tablet instantly stream, or swipe next to a Sony TV and have the tablet display mirror on the big screen. We’ve also seen that the new Galaxy S4 has a built-in infrared sensor so it can act as a universal remote control for your home theater equipment and TVs. The Xperia Z and the HTC One have exactly the same functionality.
Your Android device acting as a remote control and hub for entertainment makes perfect sense, but can’t we take it further?
We’re starting to see Android creep into cars, we’re seeing it in cameras, it’s in ovens, it’s in fridges, and it’s even in washing machines (check out LG’s range of smart appliances). You can already use Android for security systems, car diagnostics and navigation, as a digital wallet, and you can even remotely start and unlock your car with Android. How about Android in our central heating systems, our air conditioning, and our lighting systems? Some of the existing home automation solutions out there have created Android apps to tie into their systems, and the price tags are coming down. Home automation used to be the preserve of the super wealthy, but we might all be able to afford a piece in the not too distant future.
The more popular Android becomes and the more widespread and standardized the hardware is, the closer we get to a perfect storm of affordability and functionality.
Remember growing up with the idea that you’d have domestic robots serving you breakfast or you’d be jumping into an auto-piloted hovercar for the morning commute? The vision of the future we were fed as kids just isn’t going to happen (although Google’s working on the driverless cars, they just don’t hover), but no one predicted that we’d have a super powerful pocket device that could essentially control everything in our environment.
If you tie the idea of home automation together with Google Now then it starts to feel like the future. A Google Now card that would allow you to turn on and off the lights has already been spotted. Just imagine the possibilities, if Google Now detected a drop in temperature it could suggest turning the thermostat up. You make a new calendar entry for a dinner party and it could check the fridge to see what you need and return potential recipes. How about your Android device as a digital key for the front door, the garage, even the car?
Imagine your early morning alarm being accompanied by your lights coming on, your stereo or TV coming to life, and a pot of coffee automatically brewing downstairs. In the demo they also showed off how you could connect your house lights to a video gaming experience to make it more immersive.
For me Android is a central hub for entertainment in the house. I have found solutions and workarounds that allow me to access all of my content and stream it and control it at various points around the house using my Android phone, but honestly, it could be easier. The idea of tapping into lighting, appliances, heating, and more definitely appeals, provided it isn’t prohibitively expensive.
What do you think – is Android home automation something you want? What would you be prepared to pay for it? Will we see something new about Android@home at Google I/O this year? Have you tried out any existing Android home automation apps or hardware? Post a comment and tell us about your experience.