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Google's Secret Weapon In The Battle For The Internet Of Things: Academia

Can Google’s new grant program clean up a notoriously messy new category of technologies and devices?

Google's Secret Weapon In The Battle For The Internet Of Things: Academia
[Photo: Flickr user Martin Cathrae]

UPDATED 2/10/15: An earlier version of this article misstated the type of grant that researcher Amin Vahdat received from Google Research. He received focused grants, not a visiting faculty grant.

When it comes to building up clout in an emerging industry, Google pulls out all the stops. And doing that usually involves spending lots of money.

Google Research, Google’s portal to the academic world, is making major investments right now, building up an innovation and research program dedicated to the nascent collection of products and technologies collectively known as the Internet of Things (IoT). It's created a research grant program called Open Web of Things to attract talent to the company, as well as to fund and give technical support to promising research groups in academia. The application process is now closed, and Google will choose the recipients by this spring.

With Google’s acquisition of Nest a year behind us, it’s about time that the company began to reinforce its standing in the IoT world. The topic dominated the product announcements at this year's CES. Congress now has a caucus dedicated to it. And according to Gartner Research, smart home technology could add $1.9 trillion to the world’s economy by 2020.

But exactly how the Internet of Things will become a trillion dollar industry remains be seen. It’s unclear who will own your data once it reaches the cloud and how secure it will be when it travels from device to device. And there’s much left to figure out concerning data models and analytics.

The More the Merrier—Or Not

In spite of all the unknowns, many companies are diving in. They're coming out with competing ways of streaming data between products, users, and companies.

At this rate, it could seems like making smart objects freely communicate with one another is a hopeless challenge. However, Google’s Open Web of Things is going at these issues from another angle, by joining forces with the best minds from academia.

"Basically, what we wanted to do is have a clearer understanding of what the problems are," says Maggie Johnson, Google Research’s director of education and university relations.

Maggie Johnson, director of education and university relations at Google Research

To that end, Google hopes the best and brightest in the burgeoning IoT research community will take advantage of the grants and Google’s existing tech to help lead the way.

"We wanted to have a very open call for proposals. And we’ll be leveraging a lot of the relationships that we’ve built over the years and soliciting some of the best people that are working in the field," says Johnson.

A few years ago, this same type of grant program helped form Google’s artificial intelligence outfit, Google Brain. Before applying for a couple of Google grants, Geoff Hinton was better known as the "father of neural networks" in academic circles.

Now, Hinton is a key force in the company’s machine intelligence team—Google Brain’s formal name. His techniques reduced Android’s voice recognition error by 25%. "The area that he works in is very core to what we do right now," says Johnson.

The Open Web of Things program may bring in star researchers in the same way. Amin Vahdat, a pioneer in the world of optical switches, used the grant program to fund his lab's research at UC San Diego. Now, he works full-time at Google. Hinton and Vahdat are just two examples among several academic leaders who Google has snapped up through its grants.

From Vague to Structured

Given the success of past academic relationships at Google, getting scientists on board with what’s going on in the IoT on Google’s campus may bring some structure to an otherwise vague industry.

"It’s a complex landscape right now with commercial ventures, with work going on with standards. There’s academic research. There’s a lot of things going on," says Johnson.

Research in the IoT is happening globally. The Auto-ID Labs network, who first coined the term "Internet of Things," boasts seven members from the US, Europe, and Asia. Stateside, the Auto-ID Center at MIT has been turning out IoT research under the noted researcher Sanjay Sarma. Elsewhere, the Research Group for Distributed Systems at ETH Zürich, the Swedish SICS Institute, and Lancaster University in the U.K. also boast important research programs.

On the commercial side, Samsung has been making waves. At his keynote address at CES, Samsung’s co-CEO BK Yoon said any IoT hardware Samsung would make will be open, adding that 90% of its products would be open by 2017. Last year, it acquired the connected device startup SmartThings.

Microsoft has an experimental IoT group called Lab of Things. Researchers and developers, both academic and commercial, can use the Lab of Things’ resources, but it does not offer grants like Google’s program does. And the company is quietly moving into the world of open source, with its Windows Developers program for IoT and its hackable, Raspberry-Pi-like Galileo computer boards.

Apple’s HomeKit platform provides an application layer for smart home devices, but it only works with iOS. Ever the leader in mobile apps, Apple could be doing work with HomeKit that could prove essential to any industry-wide IoT standards.

Google Services Everywhere

Back at Google, the Google Cloud hosting service is a logical partner to any innovation to come about from the Open Web of Things program. The company's Google Fiber technology also makes Google an Internet service provider, which might be an avenue to explore for connecting products. And its Physical Web is its attempt to create a new type of application layer for the Internet, one that interacts with any smart device without having to go through a separate app that’s dedicated to any specific device.

"We’re trying to figure out what is possible in terms of trying to create some sort of open standard for the Internet of Things," says Johnson.

With all of this tech floating around, industry leaders have already begun to realize that standardization is necessary. Samsung and Google got together last year with other hardware makers to create a low-power wireless network called Thread. Thread uses one of three big networking protocols, next to Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart) and low-power Wi-Fi technology to connect devices to one another.

Then there’s the Open Interconnect Consortium, an initiative led by Samsung, Dell, and Intel which aims to drive open standards in the industry and deliver open-source solutions to connect any device with one another, no matter what the operating system, connection provider, or form factor.

While these open-source projects and alliances try to figure out how to standardize device-to-device communication protocols and data platforms, some think a consensus is unlikely.

"I believe the standardization, if at all possible, has to come from NSF or NIST, in the US at least. Having said that, I am not sure if we should standardize the platform. We may think about standardizing the various protocols for networking, storage, device discovery, etc.," Arjmand Samuel, research program manager at Microsoft Research, wrote in an email to Fast Company.

Dom Guinard, a cofounder of the IoT web platform EVRYTHNG says, "I don’t think we’ll have one single platform. I’ve been in this field for 10 years, and 10 years ago, we were having the same discussion."

Still, most of the current efforts lack a strong academic voice. With the Google Research partnerships, the thinking goes that everyone’s motives will balance out.

"If it’s the commercial entities, they have their own agenda. And if it’s the academics, they can be working for other reasons," Johnson says. She stresses that buying up tech from the grant program’s resulting research wasn’t Google’s immediate goal. But she recognized that it would be beneficial to the researchers who participate.

"It’s just a very diverse group of people working," she says.

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