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Nest Is Finally Starting To Feel At Home In Google’s Castle

October 13, 2017 2:04 PM
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Both Alphabet companies offer smart home hardware and platforms, but the two are starting to find ways to make their devices work together.

Three and a half years after being acquired by Google for $3.2 billion, Nest’s identity within its parent company–now called Alphabet–is starting to gel. The main reason for this is the Google Home smart speaker, and the emergence of Google’s speech-activated Assistant, whose AI brain has sparked more opportunities to make Google and Nest platforms work together seamlessly.

For a time after the acquisition, Nest’s product lineup of smart thermostats and cameras (and a smoke detector) didn’t change very much. Nest had been slow to release wholly new products, and slow to work with its new parent on new AI-infused products.

Things are different these days. “Google Home and the Assistant changed the story,” says Rishi Chandra, the Google VP who leads the company’s home hardware division. “We worked together very heavily on the product definition of Google Home.”

Chandra told me his group grew up with a focus on media, developing such products as the Chromecast streaming devices and the Google Wifi router. Chandra himself has product managed both Google TV and Chromecast at Google. Google Home is also a media device–it streams music and reads news–but it was also clear that the Home would come to be seen by consumers as a natural language device for controlling all kinds of smart home devices, including ones made by Nest.

Since Google acquired Nest to strengthen its hand in the burgeoning connected home space, it was natural and vital that Nest be involved in the creation of the Home speaker. So the two engineering groups built the product together, along with Scott Huffman’s Assistant team, which would provide the AI brain.

The Home speaker has been available for over a year now, but we’re just beginning to see the front edge of functions that leverage both the Google and Nest platforms. “We’ve started building product experiences that work best when you put Nest and Google together,” Nest cofounder Matt Rogers said.

Case in point: Google Home users will soon be able to say “OK Google, show me the entryway on my TV” and the view from a Nest security camera will show up on their TV via a Chromecast streaming device. And next year, when the new Nest Hello doorbell cam recognizes a person who has just rung the bell, it will tell the Assistant to announce the arrival of that person on every Google Home device in the house.

Further out, both Chandra and Rogers see AI helping Nest’s and Google’s smart-home products become better at learning about the households they serve.”Our mission is to build a home that takes care of the people inside it,” Rogers said. “To be able to say, “Hey, we know that your kids usually come home at about three, and we’ll let you know if they don’t.”

“That’s one of the things I’d love for the home to be able to figure out,” Rogers said. “That’s part of the promise of AI.”

Actually, Nest may have seen the home speaker coming even sooner: The company advertised to hire an audio engineer in March 2015, which some took to mean that the company was planning to build some kind of speaker device. When I asked Nest about it, I got a “no comment.” If such a product was real, it went nowhere after Nest became a Google company.

Perhaps most importantly, Nest’s work with Google around Google Home may have brought its own identity as an Alphabet company into sharper focus. Nest and Google began to think about what it will take to create a combined connected home platform that would make sense for both companies’ home devices, for Android, and for the Assistant. Fortune reported in August of 2016 that Nest’s entire platform team had joined Google “in order to create a unified Internet of things platform.” The team would also work on Google Home, the report said.

Also in 2016, Nest engineers began spending a lot more time with Google’s artificial intelligence people to leverage the computer-vision AI in its security cameras. A month after Google Home’s coming-out at Google I/O in May 2016, Nest announced a security camera with “person recognition,” or the ability to distinguish an approaching person from, say, a dog or a tree. The following year, Nest cameras would gain the ability to recognize specific faces of familiar people, like the postman–again, thanks to Google computer vision tech.

This all happened after the departure of Nest cofounder and CEO Tony Fadell in June 2016. Whether Fadell had placed barriers in the way of Nest’s collaboration with Google is up for speculation. From the outside, at least, it appears that Nest became far more engaged with Google after Fadell left, and that Nest’s main consumer-facing contribution to the Google-Nest offering for the connected home will be mainly home security products.


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