Through a pair of intertwining initiatives, Android tablets and other gadgets now look set to get a big leg up against Apple due to new and unprecedented flexibility in controlling real world objects , including robots, 5,000-pound labyrinths, home irrigation systems, 500-bulb lighting arrays, and countless other novel “accessories” anticipated for the near future.
“Think of it as the beginning of the next wave of Android,” suggested Hugo Barra, Google's product management director for Android, in describing the new Android Open Accessory and Android@Home efforts at this week’s Google I/O Conference.
Essentially, the aim is to let developers create new classes of hardware accessories and supporting Android software apps---some already prototyped but others not even dreamed up yet – that will work with any Android mobile device.
“We want to enable developers to do a lot more with Android. We want to do so in a way that will take openness to a new level,” Barra contended.
One of the Android "accessories" demo’d this week, Super Labyrinth, is a dramatic (and ironic) play on the popular Labyrinth, an accelerometer-driven software app for iPhones which revolves around navigating a virtual ball through a virtual maze on a small smartphone screen.
In Farmbot, another emerging accessory app, an Android device is deployed for managing an irrigation system intended to help you grow food inside your house. “If you don’t win the game, your plants will die,” quipped Joe Britt, Google’s engineering director.
In a third solution, planned as a real commercial product, an Android base controller produced through an effort called Project Tungsten will manage home lighting meshes, each consisting of up to 500 LED lightbulbs from Lighting Sciences.
Project Tungsten is part of Android@Home, a new initiative to let Android software apps discover, connect and communicate with devices in the home, whether these happen to be lighting fixtures, thermostats, refrigerators, or clothes dryers, to cite a few examples.
In helping to define a consistent programming interface between a mobile device and external hardware, Google’s new Android initiatives do hold certain parallels with Apple’s three-pronged MFi program, which revolves around Made for iPad, Made for iPhone, and Made for iPod logos designating compatibility between hardware accessories and specific Apple products.
But unlike Apple’s MFi, Google’s initiatives call for “no NDAs, no fees, and no approval process" for developers, according to Brill.
Other sneak peeks at Google I/O included a music box accessory -- enabling tablet-driven touch control of speakers throughout the house -- for playing tunes pulled from the cloud with Google’s new music app for Android.
Obviously, Google’s unusual approach to accessories will result in devices far outside the realm of Apple MFi-branded music streamers and Bluetooth keyboards.
For instance, presenters at the Google conference showed a prototype of a system for using NFC (Near Field Communications) to instantly transfer the contents of an entire CD to Google’s cloud simply by touching the CD to an audio speaker.
To spur innovation in accessory gadgetry, Google is providing programmers with the new Android Open Accessory ADK (Application Developer Kit), consisting of a software API (application programming interface) together with a special hardware board, dubbed the accessory controller, which connects to tablets and other mobile devices.
Currently, the kit supports communications between the controller and devices through USB only, but Bluetooth support is planned for the future. The ADK is available starting this week for both Honeycomb and Gingerbread flavors of Android.
Ultimately, Google eyes compatibility across a range of hardware controllers seen as coming forward from major manufacturers. Two controller board makers, Microchip and RT, have just signed on.
For now, though, the centerpiece of the accessory kit is Arduino, an open controller platform that already has armies of enthusiastic developers busily building highly imaginative hardware accessories and software apps.
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