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Smart Home

The future of Google's smart home starts with a button

At Google I/O, the search giant showed developers a path toward a faster, more versatile smart home.

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Google Home is where the heart is.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Press a standalone button from device maker Anker, and your Google Home smart speaker can start playing Kanye West's latest album. Press another one and you can turn off the lights or have them change color to set the mood. At the Google I/O Developer Conference, the search giant showed off these buttons at a keynote aimed specifically at developers. Anker's new buttons will hit store shelves either later this year or early next. 

Read: Google debuts Nest Hub Max, a 10-inch Google Assistant smart display for $230

The buttons are powered by software called Google Assistant Connect. Google showed off prototypes of the buttons and first debuted Connect back at CES in January. Now, it's showing off a developer kit for Connect and the button is real. Google Assistant Connect, along with another kit called "Local Home," look to make a Google-powered smart home faster and more versatile.

Getting connected

Google Assistant Connect is a low-cost way of making a device compatible with Google Assistant -- the company's voice activated digital helper similar to Amazon's Alexa. It's a kit that functions as a reference design for developers. Make a device with Google Assistant Connect, and Google takes care of the computing so the developer can focus on making creative hardware.

The buttons from Anker demonstrate how it works. You can set them up with a voice command to a nearby Google Assistant device -- such as a Google Home Mini smart speaker. The buttons communicate with the Mini over Bluetooth, but Connect works over Wi-Fi as well. Ask your Mini to set up a button, and it searches for one, finds it, then tells you to press it so the two devices can sync.

Once a Google Assistant speaker and the Anker button are synced, you can tell your Google speaker what you want the button to do. You can train the button to activate any command you'd normally give to your Google Home Mini. Tell it to check the weather and then when you hit the button the Mini will read off the forecast. You can train it to control your smart home devices or play videos on your TV.

Google Assistant Connect allows devices to act as either input extensions, output extensions or both. Input extensions activate Google Assistant -- to control your smart lights for example. Output extensions give a response. We saw a prototype e-ink display at CES that could regularly ping Google for weather info and show the forecast on its screen.

The kit ties devices to Google's smart home. You'll need one of Google's smart speakers or smart displays if you want to use that button. In exchange, Google handles the setup and Google's cloud provides any necessary info. Google's idea is that manufacturers can create a wider variety of smart devices if they don't need to worry about the smarts. Amazon has a similar program called the Amazon Connect Kit which led to the Amazon Echo Wall Clock.

Developers can get started with early access to Google Assistant Connect at I/O. It will roll out widely later this year. In addition to Anker, Google has partnered with Tile and Leviton on the first batch of consumer ready devices powered by Connect. Look for all of those to hit stores later this year or early next.

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Local home

While Google Assistant Connect is the company's pitch for less traditional smart home devices, a kit called Local Home should help manufacturers craft traditional connected gadgets that respond more quickly to commands. This kit will be available starting at I/O, and it allows Google Assistant to talk directly to smart home gadgets.

Without Local Home, if you ask Google Assistant to turn off your Philips Hue lights, the command travels to Google's cloud, which talks to Philips Hue, then sends the signal back down to the device.

Local Home makes this path much shorter. You give a command, and your Google Home smart speaker sends the command directly to your lightbulb over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Google then updates the provider's cloud but your light is already turned on.

Google is able to process the necessary information locally by storing a cached version of the command on your smart speaker or smart display. Currently, Google is already using this Local Home kit with GE smart bulbs and is now rolling it out widely.

The kit will also allow you to set up compatible devices directly in the Google Home app instead of using the provider's app. The Google Home app has become a much better control center for your smart home in the past few months, but you still couldn't set up most gadgets with it. Hopefully, this kit will start to change that.

Outlook

With Local Home making traditional gadgets faster and Google Assistant Connect angling for more versatility, Google has offered developers the tools for a better smart home. Each kit already has useful products ready or in the works. The bulbs from GE and the button from Anker make a fine start, but the success of both programs and this vision of a better smart home depends on developers taking these ideas and running with them.

Here's everything we've learned so far at Google I/O 2019.  

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