Android@Home: what you need to know

Android moves to the home, starts with lightbulbs and robots

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Anyone can get the source code for the basic Android platform and build a phone with it; now Google is letting anyone build peripherals and accessories for Android with its Android Open Accessory Kit program.

There are "no NDAs, no fees and no approvals process," engineering director (and former Sidekick founder) Joe Britt points out, while Apple's Made For iPhone program has all three.

But this isn't about Bluetooth keyboards or music streaming; Britt did show a concept music peripheral at Google I/O that would stream music from a CD that you select by recognising it with your phone (if Google could get the labels to agree to streaming you the contents of the CD you just brought home).

No, the idea here is that everything in your home, from the lightbulbs to personal robots to the tumble drier, can be controlled by your phone and can send it information.

The system will use power but it could also help you save electricity Britt suggested: "you need to have very fine grain granularity so you can understand not how many Watts your home is consuming but what devices in your home are contributing to that."

If you're handy with a soldering iron, hardware boards with USB and eventually Bluetooth connectivity based on Arduino microcontrollers will let you build a robot or a home automation interface. But Google is also working with hardware companies to build in controllers and what it promises will be an open wireless mesh protocol to various home equipment.

"If an OEM were to do that it would most likely today be a proprietary solution," claimed Android head Andy Rubin. "By the Android team doing that it becomes a standard."

Android@Home

PHONE HEAD: There are plenty of hobbyists building robots and now they can use Android as the control interface

Britt was a little mysterious about the specifics, refusing to confirm that it wasn't an existing standard like Zigbee. "It enables very low cost connectivity to anything electrical. It does require new technology but it's low cost technology.

"We realise that it has to be extremely low cost; we have a figure in mind but we're not going to share it," he told TechRadar. "It's wireless; it's not Wi-Fi. It's low cost, very low power and it's not high bandwidth. If you need Wi-Fi, use that, but if it's a dishwasher it doesn't make sense to burden it with that cost."

The first product, due at the end of this year, will be an LED lightbulb from Lighting Sciences. Eric Holland, the director of electrical engineering, gave us more details; the wireless mesh will use the 900Mhz band rather than the crowded Wi-Fi spectrum - that could mean delays in bringing this to Europe as it's used by GSM phones and will soon be a 3G frequency.

You can have up to 500 devices in a mesh and they can be 50m apart, talking to the Android@Home base station (which Google refers to as Project Tungsten).

Android@Home

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Today Lighting Science sells LED bulbs in the US and UK; the 60W equivalent bulb costs $35 but it has a dimmer circuit in – by taking that out and replacing with the Android@Home controller, Lighting Science will be able to keep the price the same.

UK bulbs will take longer to develop because they need a different transformer, and the radio control will need to be approved.

Open source hobbyist hardware development isn't new; Arduino is popular for everything from custom music controllers to robotics to home automation, and there's a variant based on the open source Microsoft .NET Micro Framework called Netduino.

Indeed, there have been many other attempts to build in open source and proprietary home automation options in the past. In a sense Google is hitching a ride on a popular bandwagon, but with the scale of Android and the new wireless mesh protocol, Android@Home could make hardware that connects to your phone much more common.

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Andy Rubin certainly has large ambitions for it. He sees moving into all kinds of hardware as a natural progression. In the early days of Android, he says, "honestly, we did bubble sort and the biggest opportunity was phones.

"Then to take that to things with bigger screens, things that might eventually reinvent desktop computing, we started thinking about tablets. And now that circle is getting bigger. Now everything should be droidified and we should just take it to new levels."

The Android hardware team is building some concept hardware like the music box (and a giant tilt maze you control by tilting a tablet) but Britt hopes developers will come up with a lot more ideas than he can.

"We don't think we're going to come up with what the killer apps are to use this technology but by embedding the ability to control any device in your home we think it enables a crazy number of new opportunities," says Britt.

Rubin puts it more colourfully; "You let these androids out of their cage and they wander around and you never know where they're going to go."

Google labyrinth

TILT: Tilt your Android tablet and instead of controlling a maze game with the accelerometer you could control a real maze – if you have a vast living room and a couple of servo motors lying around

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