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At first glance, Google's new $100 Nest Hub smart display looks just like its 2018 predecessor, save for a few minor cosmetic tweaks. But come nighttime, it unleashes a whole new superpower: Google has integrated its Soli radar sensors into the Nest Hub to turn it into a futuristic sleep tracker. By combining Soli data with locally processed audio, the smart display monitors tossing and turning, breathing, snoring and coughing to generate sleep reports.
Data and insights gathered by the display can be fed into the Google Fit app for a more comprehensive picture of a consumer's personal health. Google is also laying the groundwork for future use cases that may involve a combination of sleep and fitness data. In a hint of things to come, the company will make the Nest Hub's sleep sensing functionality available as a free preview until next year.
Google Nest senior product manager Ashton Udall told Protocol that the company decided to integrate sleep tracking into the product because smartwatches and fitness trackers simply didn't work for many people, if only because these devices require frequent charging. And sleep is a problem looking for a solution: One in three adults report getting not enough of it, and a whopping 50% have trouble falling asleep frequently, according to third-party research shared by Google. "A lot of people are struggling with this issue," Udall said.
To solve it, Google decided to rely on Soli, the mini radar tech first developed by Google's ATAP skunkworks unit. Soli was originally conceived as a way to track small finger movements to control mobile devices, but it turns out that the radar tech can also monitor an entire body. "Soli can measure movement on the micro scale and the macro scale," Udall explained.
Placed on the bedside table, the Nest Hub is able to focus just on the person next to it — and ignore partners sleeping in the same bed, Udall said: "It sort of creates a tracking bubble for your sleeping area." Google tested the Nest Hub's sleep-tracking functionality with thousands of people, for a total of more than 100,000 nights. Around 60% of those test participants were sharing their beds with co-sleepers.
Google is positioning the Nest Hub as a wellness device, not something capable of clinical diagnosis — an important distinction that does away with the need for an FDA certification. However, the company has partnered with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for the development of the feature, and Udall said that it is currently running studies to evaluate whether it can be used to monitor respiratory health — something that could benefit anyone concerned about COVID-19.
Udall painted the Nest Hub's sleep tracking as part of a move toward more holistic health and wellness monitoring. "It can be really empowering for medicine in general," he said. And it could be something that people may eventually be willing to pay for, especially once Google bundles it with other services.
Google's acquisition of Fitbit closed in January, and one could imagine that the company may choose to offer a package of monitoring for a set monthly price. Asked whether that's the plan, given that sleep sensing is being marketed as a free preview, Udall said: "To be honest, we don't know."
What's left are privacy concerns. Google aims to address them by tracking both raw Soli data and audio monitoring of sleep sounds locally on the device, only sending the combined sleep event data to its servers. The company is also giving consumers tools to pause tracking and delete data from a prior night.
Google's Nest team also stuck to its decision not to add a camera to the Nest Hub. That's notable, given how much time we've all spent on video conferences over the past 12 months. And we can't forget Google's constant — and at times obnoxious — marketing of its Meet video chat product in all of its other apps.
Asked whether his team had to duke it out with the Meet team over this, Udall laughed. "We had many fights, but that was not one of them," he said. "People don't want cameras in their bedrooms."
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.