However you feel about digital home assistants, they’re here to stay. The latest comes from Android founder Andy Rubin’s new company, Essential, which promises their new digital hub is something different.
The hub lands as part of Essential’s official coming out party, where Rubin also unveiled its slick new Android handset. The Essential phone (see what they did, there?) is an Android flagship through and through; 128GB Memory, 4GB RAM, an edge-to-edge screen that wraps around the front-facing camera, dual cameras around back and a magnetic attachment for accessories. Both the front-facing and rear cameras can shoot 4K video, too.
Essential Home is, like the Amazon Echo Show, a voice-first assistant with a screen. Unlike the Echo Show, Essential Home is nice to look at. It’s round, and the touchscreen faces up rather than ‘out’ making it a nice addition to a coffee table – where tech companies seem to think we should have these hubs in our home.
The company claims it can do things like throttle music volume down when it senses a conversation, and will learn your home’s layout and people who live there. It claims to have the ability to know which users utilize certain services, too.
Along with Home, Essential is launching Ambient OS, which it says will help bring “order to the endless standards, protocols, and systems wrought by the Internet of Things.” According to Wired, Essential Home works with Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa, SmartThings, HomeKit, Nest and “the rest,” which presumably means Cortana. It’s not clear if the final product will ship with support for all those assistants and platforms when it officially launches later this year.
Essential says that by corralling all these APIs into one standalone unit and platform, it can both protect user data and help automate your home with some contextual brilliance. All data processing will be done on the device itself. It’s not yet known how Ambient OS plans to safeguard data for platforms like Google Assistant and Alexa that require identifiable information filtered through a cloud environment to work properly unless its safety promises relate only to in-home activities like turning lights on.
Which is where Ambient OS gets tricky. Essential says it’s the ‘operating system for your home’ that will be “choreographing the devices, content, people, and context in it.” It’s also promising an API for Ambient OS and Home – presumably a single API. In press materials, it routinely refers to its API as “the API” rather than a developer toolkit or series of APIs meant for actions. That sounds sensational until we start considering how a single API can manage a litany of events.
To do that without controlling the entire stack – which Essential doesn’t, and never will since it just taps into existing platforms – it likely means a single API point will have multiple calls. If a developer were offered the ability to turn on LIFX lights green (which work with HomeKit) when an Alexa timer goes off via the Ambient OS API, that’s several calls – possibly dependent on how many lights or scenes you’re trying to activate.
That will lead to latency, which is antithetical to where digital assistant technology is headed. It’s a paradigm shift, too; do you want to try to develop experiences for an all-in-one hub to make your life a bit simpler, or focus on individual platforms to make your users’ lives easier?
Rather than skate to where the puck will be, Essential seems to be trying to melt the ice. It’s a unique gambit. Unfortunately, the beauty appears skin deep, but we’ll reserve true judgement until launch time.