What if you didn’t have to fiddle with gadgets all day?
That’s the promise of ambient computing, a combination of AI and sensing technology in the future home and beyond. Imagine this scenario. You’re out with friends and you notice the weather has turned hot and sunny. That’s not a good thing for your new garden. Fortunately, a sensor triggers the sprinkler system, even though you didn’t set up a watering schedule.
When one device in your home communicates with another, using AI to trigger events that help you (or at least give you an option to activate an event), that’s ambient computing. It depends on “sensing” in that the devices can act or prompt you for certain behaviors.
Recently, Andy Rubin (known as the creator of Android, even though he says it was a team effort) announced a new product called Essential Home. It’s not a terrible product name, although “Essential” is a generic food brand and “Home” is the name of a similar Google product. The circular device runs on the new Ambient OS — or, I should say that it will run on the OS.
There are no firm plans for when the product will ship, and the Essential site appears to show mock-up renders. That said, it looks like an interesting device. It resembles the Amazon Echo Dot a bit (as it’s shaped like a hockey puck) and functions like the Amazon Echo Show (since it has a screen).
According to Essential, the device can sense other products on the same network, and — presumably using some open source trickery — offer to connect that device. There’s no technical explanation about how that will work. Rubin has also said the device could use the personal assistants from Amazon, Apple, or Google. If that’s anything like running the Google Assistant on your iPhone, where you can’t say “OK, Google,” it could be a problem. We want ease of use and ease of functionality.
Still, the concept makes sense (ahem). We want smarter, more proactive devices. We want them to “just work” and sense other gadgets, regardless of whether they have a Samsung logo on the box or are only available from Lowe’s. Frankly, there are too many brands to worry about, too many apps, and not enough hours in the day. Last summer, when I installed a new security system, it didn’t connect to my thermostats or garage door openers. I don’t care about brand loyalty, I just need to park my car and turn on the air conditioning. The end user cares about utility.
This is where AI plays such an important role. Sensing depends greatly on machine learning — a computer that thinks like a human. It has to be immensely powerful to work. If the Essential Home device senses my connected garage door openers and pre-conditions my house so it’s nice and cool by the time I drive up the road, it won’t matter to me which products or software were involved. I’ll be too tired after working all day to care.
Now, I’m a little skeptical about all of this. Computers respond to the commands we write for them. The smart home uses software and apps that are branded and coded to work with certain hardware devices. If a Chamberlain garage door doesn’t work with a Nest thermostat, that’s not something Essential will be able to resolve on its own. It will need to get those two companies to work together, and open source software only helps to an extent. I’ve tested many of these products. When they are incompatible, there’s not much you can do.
This is an uphill climb, but maybe Rubin and team can make it all work. The massive market share for Android is one indication of the team’s potential for success.
We’ll know more when Essential releases more details about the product, hopefully soon.