Imagine a windshield wiper automatically turning itself on when it starts raining, even when the driver is ordering coffee inside a Starbucks a few meters away. Or having the air-conditioning turning itself off the moment you walk out the door.
Think of getting alerted to bring rain gear moments before you step out of the house, or getting something you ordered on the Internet delivered by a robot. It sounds like science fiction, but could become reality if Google is to have its way.
Google is into a new venture: the Internet of Things. The Internet giant has been expanding its reach, not just in search engine but in terms of its IoT portfolio. In the past six months it has acquired several IoT-capable companies, spending more than $4 billion.
Google has been largely quiet about its plans and why it has recently been on a shopping spree, but the very nature of the companies it has acquired speaks a lot about what it is cooking up. The companies include:
- Schaft, which is a Tokyo-based company that makes strong and compact robots. Schaft recently won the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a fete for robots that are used in disaster relief and rescue efforts, sponsored by the Pentagon.
- Industrial Perception, which creates software that allows robots “to see,” locate, and identify things around them. All these are abilities needed to unload cargo from trucks.
- Redwood Robotics, which is a company that is working on strong robotic arms for repetitive and dull tasks.
- Bot and Dolly, a firm that is also into robotic arms. A recent milestone for the company was its work for the Sandra Bullock starrer, Gravity.
- Autofuss, a sister company of Bot and Dolly.
- Meka Robotics, which makes social robots or robots that work alongside humans.
- Holomni, a company that manufactures omnidirectional wheels and even vehicles.
- Boston Dynamics, which is an engineering and robotics design firm that is best known for Big Dog, a robot that was designed for the United States military, as well as COTS software that is designed for realistic simulation of human movements.
- DeepMind Technologies, which is a British company that delves into artificial intelligence.
- Nest Labs, a company that is focused on the Internet of Things. Some of its products include a smart thermostat and carbon monoxide detectors.
Companies that are involved in the manufacture of smart home devices, as well as other Internet of Things devices, are heralding Google’s moves as a good thing. Nest had already proven itself in the IoT space, making smart thermostats “top of mind” with many consumers. With Google’s backing, it is expected that the company would be able to stamp out some of its smaller rivals and be able to introduce even more IoT devices to consumers.
More importantly, the purchase of Nest supports the IoT market in general. The year 2014 was to be a banner year for the Internet of Things and this development is as good a validation as any. It also shows that Google thinks IoT devices are not just a fad, but that it has a strong future. Enough for the company to invest billions in it, anyway.
Google’s entry into robotics is also interesting. Robotics is primarily focused at automating tasks so no human would need to touch them. It could be unloading cargo, or putting merchandise into its packaging. Couple that kind of automation with smart devices for monitoring and control, and you have a formidable machine.
One of the most salient developments in this story, however, is that Google is bringing in Andy Rubin to head its IoT projects. Rubin, according to a New York Times article, started his career in robotics and is known to have a keen interest in building and creating smart machines. He is a former employee of Apple Computer and German manufacturer Carl Zeiss. In Carl Zeiss, he worked as a robotics engineer. He has also been on the board of several startup companies, as well as chief executive at some of them.
More importantly, perhaps, Rubin is the engineer behind Google Android. Android is what powers a great majority of smartphones today after taking the lead from Apple’s iOS. As Ashlee Vance of BusinessWeek.com puts it, Android is the standard OS for the Internet of Things, or is at least quickly getting there.
Could Rubin’s hiring be an effort on the search giant’s part to cement its position in the Internet of Things space?
If it is, it is not surprising. As we all know, Google’s main business is data and being able to collect, aggregate, analyze, and make these data meaningful. Google stands to get a lot of new data from the Internet of Things.