At Google I/O, Android may push deeper into the home

A new version of the mobile OS is said to target low-power devices with little memory

Attendees enter the Google IO conference at San Francisco's Moscone Center on May 15, 2013

Attendees enter the Google IO conference at San Francisco's Moscone Center on May 15, 2013

Android, already the most widely used operating system in smartphones, could soon find its way into refrigerators, door locks and all manner of other "smart" appliances around the home.

The OS will be in the spotlight at Google's massive I/O conference in San Francisco later this week. As well as pushing into home appliances, it could also be extended to play a deeper role in virtual reality, allowing Android developers to build apps for smartphones or VR headsets.

Google hasn't confirmed any of those plans yet, but as usual, the rumor mill has been in motion. Extending Android to even more devices could help Google draw more people to its online services, and by putting the software in home appliances, Google could gather further valuable insights into people's behavior.

Google already has its Works with Nest program, which lets appliances talk to its thermostat and smoke alarm for certain energy-related tasks. But according to a report last week in The Information, Google is developing new technology called Brillo that will run on low-powered devices independent of Nest with as little as 64MB or 32MB of memory.

That means just about any appliance around the home -- the lights, the air conditioner, a Crock-Pot -- could be running Brillo and hooked up to the Web, so you could control them remotely from a smartphone or a PC. It's a well-worn path that Microsoft and many other vendors also are treading, as they try to provide software and connectivity for tomorrow's Internet of Things.

At I/O, Google may also push Android deeper into virtual reality. In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was developing a VR version of Android.

It's less clear what that would look like. Google could surprise us with an entirely new virtual reality headset, or even a revived, VR version of Google Glass. The company said in January it was closing the Explorer program for Glass to focus on developing a new version of the products.

Perhaps more likely is a version of Android that runs virtual reality applications. Such a system could make it easier for developers to use the sensors and other capabilities in smartphones to create VR apps, or else support multiple displays for an immersive experience. The Google I/O schedule lists some sessions focused on designing and developing VR apps.

In the past few months, Google's biggest competitors have been making their own moves in VR, the smart home and IoT.

Microsoft unveiled HoloLens, a headset that allows wearers to interact with holograms, and Facebook has been generating buzz with Oculus Rift before the headset is even widely on sale. And in the smart home, Samsung has been pushing hard with its SmartThings platform.

"I think we'll see a little catch-up from Google" at this week's I/O, said Jessica Groopman, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group.

Google has already dipped its toes into virtual reality. At I/O last year the company showed off Cardboard, a crude but functional VR device that uses lenses to create a 3D effect after inserting an Android phone into it. Outside developers have since made their own versions of Cardboard, along with software for it. Google now offers a software development kit to programmers developing Cardboard apps. With Cardboard, Google may have learned useful lessons that it can bring to more sophisticated VR software.

Google also has Project Tango, one of its more advanced projects to create tablets and smartphones with 3D mapping and depth-sensing technology.

Some lesser known smart glasses makers, like the Osterhout Design Group and Vuzix, which overlay content on the wearer's field of vision, already run a form of Android. But a more formalized Android OS for virtual reality, one that provides a strong link to Google services, would benefit the company more than the modified forms of Android that sometimes appear in other devices, said Gartner analyst Brian Blau.

Google may have a few other tricks up its sleeve this week as well. A session hosted by Google's Advanced Technology and Projects group will introduce wearable technology "we hope will blow your socks off" -- a description Google says it means "more literally than you might think." Is Google to unveil a smart sock?

There are also rumors of an online photo sharing service that would exist separately from the photo service in Google+.

I/O might also see an update to the main Android OS, dubbed Android M, with its own fingerprint login system, according to a report by BuzzFeed. It may also include new ways for users to decide what personal information apps are able to access, said a BloombergBusiness report. The "M" is probably a placeholder for a full name that will follow alphabetically from the current Android release, Lollipop.

There may also be enhancements and new partnerships around Android TV and Android Auto. A couple of sessions focus on helping developers get content from their apps onto Android TV screens, or making their apps more easily searchable there.

Groopman, the analyst at Altimeter, said a critical question is whether Google will be able to clarify how all its different technologies -- including its Android and Chrome OSes -- all fit together. As the company sells more devices and extends its software to more use cases, questions about its influence and larger strategy become more important than ever.

"How will all of these things align into a nice package of how Google fits into our lives in a physical sense?" she asked.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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