A “slap-tracking smart display” sounds like something you might think of pulling tech product buzzwords out of a hat, but that’s the latest Google product rumor about the ever-reliable 9to5Google. Earlier this week, a new Nest product made it to the FCC with Project Soli on board, and after some digging, 9to5 sources now say it’s a new Nest Hub smart display with sleep tracking. I think the idea here is an alarm clock that scans you with radar waves while you sleep.
The Project Soli support disclosed in the FCC filing is a small radar chip that Google has developed internally for gesture detection. The chip has been under development for at least six years from Google’s ATAP group and has yet to be commercially successful. The original promise was that Soli could detect fine finger movements, such as the virtual tapping of a button or the turning of a dial, but the commercial models have never approached this level of fidelity. Soli debuted on the Pixel 4, where it could only detect large hand movements, and it was enough of a failure that it didn’t make it to the Pixel 5. The chip is currently in the new Nest thermostat, but it only replaces the old motion sensor and doesn’t appear to offer any new capabilities or enhanced features.
Google’s partners pitched the idea of a Google Assistant smart display as a bedside alarm clock, most notably in the Lenovo Smart Clock, but Google hasn’t made one of its own. Some smart displays from Google come with video calling and facial recognition cameras, but it’s easy to imagine consumers being hesitant to put a camera in the bedroom. With Soli radar, Google would be able to track user movements without seeing the horrific details. Today, Google smart displays and speakers use ultrasonic sonar for some basic presence detection, but Soli may be able to offer greater reliability.
The Project Soli air gestures used for the Pixel 4 also seem to be slightly more useful on a smart screen than on a phone. The Pixel 4 can detect an arm swing to skip music or a flat hand to silence an alarm. Those weren’t exactly useful, as a phone is almost always by your side, offering a more accurate touchscreen that’s probably at your fingertips, but how about a smart display? Since a smart display is visible from across the room and is something you don’t carry with you, you are more likely to interact with it from a distance. If the Nest Hub version of Soli has some reach, some form of hand-waving content control gestures can be helpful.
It’s not clear why consumers would want Google to track their sleep patterns. Sleep tracking has mostly been the domain of fitness trackers and smartwatches, and Google doesn’t really compete in those areas anymore. Google has a smartwatch platform, Wear OS, but it’s basically dead. The last major Wear OS update was in 2018, and Google recently killed the closest thing Wear OS had to a great app, Google Fit’s strength training. Google is currently working on clearing its Fitbit acquisition with regulators, but Fitbit isn’t a winner of wearables either. It was an early mover in the fitness tracking trend, but its market share has fallen to single digits as competitors have emerged, with companies like Xiaomi taking the low-end and Apple the high-end. If Google can’t run sleep tracking through a viable fitness platform, I think a smart alarm clock is best.
9to5Google says that “the new Nest Hub is coming with Soli this year” and “we’ve been told it will arrive sooner rather than later.” The site also notes that the FCC filing that started the investigation has a confidentiality request that expires in July, so we’ll likely hear more about the product before then.