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

Here’s how Facebook taught its Portal A.I. to think like a Hollywood filmmaker

When Facebook introduced its Portal screen-enhanced smart speakers, it wanted to find a way to make video chat as intimate as sitting down for a conversation with a friend. Here's how it did it.
Smart Home

Leviton’s Wi-Fi Load Center and Smart Circuit Breakers give your home a brain

Is your home ready for a brain transplant? Adding individual smart plugs is quick, easy, and inexpensive, but the benefits are limited to one plug at a time. Leviton's Load Center and Smart Circuit Breakers can give your home a brain.

Take a gander at the best deals on 4K TVs for February 2019

There's no doubt that a good 4K smart TV is the best way to take your home entertainment setup to the next level to enjoy all your favorite shows, movies, and games in glorious Ultra HD. We've got the best 4K TV deals right here.

Amazon slashes prices on robot vacuums in time for Valentine’s Day

Treat yourself this Valentine's Day to smart home tech that will make your life so much easier. Amazon is slashing the prices on robot vacuums like our recommended favorite Ecovacs Deebot N79S. Ditch the cables with a self-cleaning robot…
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

NASA to launch SPHEREx mission to investigate the origins of our universe

NASA is launching an ambitious mission to map the entire sky to understand the origins of the universe. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission will launch in 2023.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.
Emerging Tech

How can digital art created on obsolete platforms be preserved?

As the lines between art and technology continue to blur, digital art experiences become more commonplace. But these developments are raising an important question for art conservationists: How should digital artworks be preserved?
Emerging Tech

Statistician raises red flag about reliability of machine learning techniques

Machine learning is everywhere in science and technology. But how reliable are these techniques really? A statistician argues that questions of accuracy and reproducibility of machine learning have not been fully addressed.
Emerging Tech

Chandra X-ray telescope uncovers evidence of the universe’s missing matter

Where is all of the matter in the universe? NASA's Chandra telescope has uncovered evidence of hot gas strands in the vicinity of a quasar which could explain the missing third of matter which has puzzled astronomers for years.
Emerging Tech

Wish you could fly? You totally can with these top-of-the-line drones

In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. Here's a no-nonsense rundown of the best drones you can buy right now, no matter what kind of flying you plan to do.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s space observatory will map the sky with unprecedented detail

NASA is preparing to launch a cutting-edge space observatory to create the most detailed map ever produced of the sky. Doing so will involve surveying hundreds of millions of galaxies. Here's how it plans to do it.
Smart Home

No strings attached: This levitating lamp uses science to defy gravity

Now on Kickstarter, the Levia lamp is a cool industrial-looking lamp which boasts a levitating bulb. Looking for a table light that will dazzle visitors? You've come to the right place.