Google’s radar-sensing tech could make any object smart

The dream of the smart home is that every object in our houses can communicate with every other one. But as great as that sounds on paper, it’s not very practical.

For one thing, it means replacing plenty of perfectly good “dumb” objects with pricier “smart” ones filled with sensors. It also comes with security and privacy risks — not to mention the current smart hub war being waged between companies like Amazon and Apple to establish a dominant smart home platform.

A solution could well be at hand, however — and it involves radar, a technology which has been around for the best part of a century. Meet Google’s Soli project.

Radar-based computing has been wowing people in research labs for the past several years. In 2015, Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) showed off tiny radar-based sensors that let users control gadgets by simply tapping their fingers together. Released from its Mountain View, CA, birthplace, the miniature radar technology is being explored by select universities around the world. The results are pretty darn exciting.

google project soli fcc approval

Making every object smart

As exciting as the idea of gestural interfaces certainly is — letting people control their smart home devices through a kind of user interface performative dance — it took researchers based approximately 5,000 miles from Google’s main campus to truly get us excited about radar-powered computing.

“Suddenly, every object in your home becomes a way to communicate with your computer.”

Recently, computer scientists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland demonstrated how Google’s Soli sensor can be used to detect interactions with objects with an impressive level of detail. For instance, it can keep track of the number of cards being dealt from a deck.

Similarly, it can measure the sand in an hourglass, tally the number of sheets of paper or poker chips being stacked, or even work out the shape of simple Lego structures. All of this is done entirely using radar signals, without any image recognition.

Those have clear potential applications in places like casinos or offices. More excitingly, though, is what they suggest about the possibility of smart homes. “Placing computation into every element in the home might not be the most scalable or secure way going forward,” Professor Aaron Quigley, Chair of Human Computer Interaction in the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews, told Digital Trends. “An approach that has one or two elements that can sense the interactions of lots of other household objects could be a more suitable approach.”

Radar-based technology could make every object in our homes smart without having to add computation for each one. “Soli interaction makes us realize that we don’t need to interact with computers that look anything like the computers we’ve interacted with in the past,” he continued. “We can interact with computers just using day-to-day objects. If I had this kind of sensor in, for instance, a regular kettle and a cup, it’s possible to detect them. You can interact with them, and the computer will understand what you’re doing. Suddenly, every physical object in your home becomes a way to communicate with your computer.”

“You won’t have to program in all of these things because the machine will just recognize them.”

The technology could, for instance, turn everyday objects into “tokens.” Rather than having to learn new gestures, you just interact regularly with objects, and let your computer figure out the rest. Imagine, for instance, being able to flick through a stack of records or a pile of DVDs, and then trigger the media playing by pulling out one specific title. For anyone still mourning the death of tangible media like CDs, the physical case becomes the token. What is removed is the point of failure of the actual CD itself. As Quigley puts it, “The idea is that passive inert objects become part of your computational interaction.”

Radars in the home?

For anyone who has seen a giant radar dish, the idea of having equivalent technology in our homes sounds crazy. But as with other sensors, miniaturization has transformed monostatic radars.

Consider computers, which transitioned from room-occupying behemoths in the 1950s to personal computers a couple of decades later to smartphone microprocessors in the current day; so too are radar chips smaller than our fingernails going to make this technology mainstream in a way it never was before. For the first time ever, radar chips are small, low-powered, and low-cost enough to be used everywhere — even to create the world’s smallest violin.

Heck, thanks to a recent U.S. Federal Communications Commission waiver, Project Soli sensors are now allowed to use frequencies between 57 and 64 Ghz, higher than typically allowed in normal gadgets. This will only broaden the number of possible applications.

“This is why I love working in a university,” Quigley continued. “Students come in with none of the preconceptions that so many of us have. They have expectations that technology can be so much better. They’re unsurprised by what’s possible. Their approach is, ‘Why shouldn’t I be able to wave my hand in front of a dishwasher to start and stop it?’ or ‘Why shouldn’t the washing machine recognize the contents of the clothes pile you’re carrying?’ You won’t have to program in all of these things because the machine will just recognize them. This isn’t far away. It’s coming sooner than we think.”

We can’t wait to see what happens next. Get ready for a world of radar-powered smart homes.

Emerging Tech

How emotion-tracking A.I. will change computing as we know it

Affectiva is just one of the startups working to create emotion-tracking A.I. that can work out how you're feeling. Here's why this could change the face of computing as we know it.
Smart Home

Amazon and Best Buy drop the price of the Ecobee4 Smart Thermostat with Sensor

Amazon and Best Buy have cut the price for the Ecobee4 Smart Thermostat with built-in Alexa and a Room Sensor. The Ecobee4 made our Best Smart Thermostats list thanks in part to its ability to monitor temperatures in 32 areas.
Buying Guides

Want a home command center? These smart displays put you in charge

Which smart display is best for you? A lot of smart speakers with a screen have been released lately. Whether it's Alexa or Google Assistant, here are a few of our favorites available now.
Product Review

4K in home security is finally here, thanks to Arlo’s Ultra UHD smart cam

The 4K home security camera is finally here! Class-leading image clarity and a super-wide field of vision makes Arlo Ultra an early contender for the year’s best smart cam. While there are definite quirks to the device, the device…
Emerging Tech

Gravitational forces at heart of Milky Way shaped this star cluster like a comet

Hubble has captured the stunning Messier 62 cluster. The cluster is warped, with a long tail which stretches out to form a shape like a comet. It is thought this distortion is due to Messier 62's proximity to the center of the galaxy.
Emerging Tech

The grid of the future will be powered by … giant subterranean bagpipes?

In order to transition to a more renewable-focused energy system, we need to scale up our grid storage capacity --- and our existing methods aren't going to cut it. Could compressed air be the key?
Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.
Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Emerging Tech

Geoengineering is risky and unproven, but soon it might be necessary

Geoengineering is a field dedicated to purposely changing the world's climate using technology. Call it 'playing god' if you must; here's why its proponents believe it absolutely must happen.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Earth Day, indoor container farming, robot submarines

Today on Digital Trends Live, we discuss how technology intersects with Earth Day, a new Tim Cook biography, indoor container farming, robot spy submarines, A.I. death metal, and more.

Google’s Stadia is the future of gaming, and that’s bad news for our planet

Google’s upcoming Stadia cloud gaming service, and its competitors, are ready to change the way gamers play, but in doing so they may kick off a new wave of data center growth – with unfortunate consequences for the environment.