The Essential Home smart home hub

Anyone who’s followed tech over the past decade knows what a huge role Andy Rubin has played in mobile computing. As one of the principals behind the Sidekick mobile device, co-creator of the Android operating system and the architect of Google’s mobile strategy, it’s not an exaggeration to say Rubin is one of a handful of people who helped shape the face of the modern technology landscape.

So when Rubin left Google in 2013, many of us were curious if he had another big idea. With such a prolific track record, there was a good chance he wouldn’t be content just sitting around. The company he founded next, Playground Global, seemed innocuous enough at first – a venture fund for hardware – but was just shrouded enough in mystery to make one wonder if Rubin and his high-powered team had a surprise up their sleeves.

It turns out they did. That something is Essential, a new hardware company whose first two products are a new phone (called, naturally, the Essential Phone) and smart home platform called Essential Home.

Unlike the Essential Phone, the specifics of the Essential Home are somewhat vague. However, the clues we do have are tantalizing and show promise.

Here are the highlights:

Heavy on Scenes & Context

According to the company, the Essential Home isn’t just another control point for your devices, but instead one that is an “orchestra conductor for your digital instruments – something that can get them to start to work together in new, exciting ways.”

This means that it will likely work to create scenes across devices instead of straightforward device automation. That’s great but not all that different than other smart home platforms out there. However, there looks to be a heavy dose of AI-powered contextual understanding weaved into these scenes:

Essential Home “can take note of your routines and let you know when something feels off or if a light is left on. You can ask Essential Home to play your favorite music and when you start a conversation it will adjust the volume downward so you don’t have to talk over it. When you’re getting ready in the morning, Essential Home can show how long you have until you need to leave and even blink the lights when it is time… The best part? I can ask Essential Home to do all of this without having to fumble with an app.” 

This is not surprising. The era of simply being a smart connector box is so 2014, and today a smart home hub needs to be a virtual assistant that learns from past user activity, understands the physical living space in which it resides, and leverage data streams coming from other devices to proactively provide contextual recommendations.

Of course, anyone who uses anticipatory computing services like Google Assistant knows this all sounds great but can be annoying in practice if not executed well or if they take too heavy a hand in performing an unapproved action, so I am very intrigued to see well this performs in practice.

Light on Clouds

Cloud integration has become a fast and easy way for different smart devices to integrate. Product platforms such as Alexa, Samsung smart home, and others utilize the cloud to integrate with other devices, a much easier route to market than device to device direct integration.

However, relying on the cloud to power your smart home comes with disadvantages, something to which anyone who has had a broadband outage can attest. There are also greater privacy and security risks through relying on cloud services to power your smart home.

“We’ve designed Essential Home to run most things on the device itself, so most data stays in your home where it belongs. Essential Home will directly talk to your devices over your in-home network whenever possible to limit sending data to the cloud.”

By focusing on device-to-device interaction and keeping user data local as much as possible, the company seems to be making consumer privacy and data security a point of differentiation.

The Ambient OS

The introduction to Essential Home makes a bold statement: “The Home Now Has an OS.”

That would sound a lot like marketing fluff were it not coming from the guy who brought us Android. In a blog post by Essential’s head of software development, we get a few details about what this means:

“Ambient OS provides a set of services and abstractions that enable the development and execution of applications that run in the context of your home. With Ambient OS, your home is the computer. Ambient OS is aware of the physical layout of your home, the people that live in it, services relevant to both your home and the people within, and devices.

Ambient OS is the API to your home that enables the creation of applications that extend the reach of a single device. For example, you can setup a timer and have the lights in the livingroom flash when it goes off. With the Ambient OS API, developers have access to available devices, services, and home information and can use these resources as the building blocks of their applications.”

Of course, the devil is in the details, but I like the sound of where they are headed. The approach sounds less heavy than HomeKit, but more deeply integrated than services like IFTTT.

Ultimately, I think success will depend on how easy on-boarding of new third-party hardware will be. If the company takes low-friction approach that Alexa did initially with its Skill platform, they’re likely on the right track.  If they require a business relationship with third party devices to enable interoperability a la HomeKit, chances are it won’t fly. My guess would be it’s more prior than the latter.

Lastly, no one’s really captured the “magic” of the smart home in a way that is enough to propel the overall concept to go mass market. Amazon’s Alexa is the closest we’ve had to a an “iPhone moment” with the smart home. While it’s too soon to say if the Essential Home Ambient OS is another transformative product for the smart home, it sounds like that’s what Rubin’s team is aiming for.

Device Design

Based on the description of the device, obvious interaction methods include voice and touch control. The device description says a “glance” is enough to trigger an action, which could also mean motion sensing or even machine vision (though it doesn’t look like the Home has a camera on the initial product images I’ve seen).

The actual hardware looks pleasing enough, with a circular touch screen display and small, modern form factor. It doesn’t look like it has much in the way of a speaker – though I could be wrong or the device could change as it moves toward production – so I don’t know if it’s much of an Echo competitor.

Pricing is also a mystery. While the Essential Phone is premium priced at $749 (it’s made of titanium, after all), I’m sure the Home will be more affordable. Andy Rubin is speaking at the Code conference today, so we’ll update this post with any further details.

Related: Rubin: Essential Home Will Be The “Bridge” Between Competing Smart Home Ecosystems

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