Android in Appliances: From Cameras to Satellites, Appliances to NASA’s PhoneSat project [A Recap]

Last week, Nikon announced its latest camera in the point and shoot category: the Coolpix S800c, a tool powered with a 16 megapixel, BSI CMOS sensor that can click pictures at 10X optical zoom, but what places this camera out of the league of hundreds of other point and shoots is that it runs on Gingerbread. Yes, Android 2.3.

This is the first time that a mainstream player has ditched its proprietary OS in favour of the open source Android. Rightly so. With this daring move, S800c becomes the first compact digital camera to incorporate both the powerful imaging technologies of a mainstream manufacturer and the limitless capabilities of the Android OS. Needless to mention, the smart camera can directly connect to the internet and upload photos, and the inbuilt GPS ensures you can geotag all photos you share on Facebook, Google+ or Instagram. Android also means you can download and use apps like Photoshop Express to spruce up your images in-camera, and not being dependent on just the limited processing options supplied by the manufacturer’s clumsy software. (I am not necessarily talking of Nikon here; most camera manufacturers have software that sucks).Android_in_Appliances

Though this is the first time we have seen such an implementation, there have been earlier attempts at integrating Android with non-phone and non-tablet appliances.

LG had shared, in early 2011, its vision of appliances and smartphones coming together to create the ultimate connected home. They had showed examples of web-connected washing machines, refrigerators, ovens and a robot vacuum substantially improved with Android apps on tablets or smartphones. LG launched, later that year, its line of Smart Home Appliances with intelligent appliances but they did not directly use Android, but needed an Android-based phone or tablet. Patrick Steinkuhl, LG’s product insight manager then, had said:

Imagine an oven that’s so smart that on the day of the big game it’s able to send you a text and say, ‘Hey, your roast is about done. You’d better get in the kitchen.’”

Google has been very bullish on its Android@Home initiative that was previewed in Google I/O 2011. Android@Home allows Android apps to discover, connect and communicate with appliances in your home. This was perceived as a system where your smartphone is the nucleus of the “internet of things” that you’ll have around you, networking all appliances you use. Google also debuted an Android Open Accessory Support in the same I/O to help developers start building new hardware accessories that will work across all Android devices.

Though the Android Open Accessory Support received with great enthusiasm and raised high hopes for developers and manufacturers around the world, there were no noteworthy developments by any home appliances or electronics manufacturers. Even Google took a full one year before it announced its first Android@Home device in Google I/O 2012, the Nexus Q.

The octopus-shaped Nexus Q is one of its kind device designed and engineered in-house by Google, is a small sphere (4.6 inches diameter, to be precise) which combines the power of Android and Google Play to easily stream music and video in your home—all controlled by an Android phone or tablet. The Q itself runs on Android 4.0, and can be controlled remotely via another Android device. It is the first-ever social streaming device—like a cloud-connected jukebox where everyone brings their own music to the party. Google gave away Nexus Q’s at the Google I/O keynote for an early preview in June, and consumers were mesmerized but are still awaiting delivery as the commercial launch was indefinitely postponed and pre-order customers informed via email.

Google’s earlier product, Google TV that gained quite some popularity in the US, also runs on Android and converts your TV to a large-screened device that can run Chrome and YouTube and add some smartness to your otherwise idiot box.

Apart from these Google devices that run directly on Android, there are other kind of applications like the Kickstarter-backed Pebble Smart Watch that was able to raise $10 million for a watch that can talk to your Android phone (okay, iPhone too) and can be set to alert you of incoming emails, texts, calls, and other alerts through an app, and displays an e-paper screen. A very nifty application of Android that can be used to run apps to cover cycling, golfing or running, and use its accelerometer to monitor your activity, like the Nike Fuelband.

On similar lines as LG, Panasonic announced a new Android app last week for home automation. Christened Panasonic Smart App and available from late September, the application will allow users of compatible Panasonic home appliances to remotely—or closely, using NFC—operate their appliances like refrigerators, air conditioners, and healthcare products, by using Android smartphones. These devices can talk to themselves and to you, by utilizing the power of you-know-what. Android.

Another very promising use case of Android, actually in its current telephonic avatar, is being researched by NASA. NASA’s PhoneSat project demonstrates the ability to launch the lowest-cost and easiest to build satellites ever flown in space. PhoneSat 1.0, based on the Nexus One with external batteries and a radio beacon, has only one purpose in life: to survive harsh conditions in space and send back pictures and stats about itself but PhoneSat 2.0 will be based around the considerably more powerful Nexus S, and feature additional external hardware to make the craft more useful. Solar panels will allow the PhoneSat 2.0 to operate for a longer duration, and a two way radio will let scientists send commands up to the satellite. Hoping to inject new life into low-cost space exploration, NASA’s PhoneSat program will launch a series of Android-controlled mini-satellites into space later this year.

The PhoneSat program is part of the larger Small Spacecraft Technology Program, which aims to leverage the incredible advances made in consumer technology to create cheaper spacecraft. Ames engineer Chris Boshuizen explains that NASA should embrace the latest consumer technology, rather than constantly reinventing the wheel:

“Your cellphone is really a $500 robot in your pocket that can’t get around. A lot of the real innovation now happens in entertainment and cellphone technology, and NASA should be going forward with their stuff.”

From TVs to watches, home appliances to satellites, Android finds its use in all kinds of devices. Experiments have been done to run cars and remote monitoring cameras, and solving Rubic’s cubes. The possibilities are endless.

Nikon has come the nearest to porting Android on something other than handheld computers called phones/tablets, and there lies a future for these devices that can overtake their counterparts. Android on the Nikon S800c makes it much more powerful than being just a camera; it could well onset the comeback of the point and shoot camera, that have been losing their market share on the mobile phone cameras on one end and DSLRs on the other. More importantly, this validates that Android can be ported to many different devices and not just the phone or the tablet.

This is just the beginning.

A very promising one at that. You can hope for a scifi-kind well-connected system around you where all your devices and appliances and implements and vehicles talk to each other, know your preferences, and act in the best service of humanity. Android is the OS that can empower such a network, the internet of things, and bring about a convergence of technology. That day is not far.

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