Illustration by Alex Castro / Verge
Michele Turner and Grant Erickson sat down to dinner in early 2019. Two of their counterparts from Amazon, and two from Apple were present at the Silicon Valley’s Woodside restaurant. Both Erickson and Turner worked for Google. Tobin Richardson from the Zigbee Alliance was the host of the dinner party. John Osborne, also from Zigbee Alliance, was the other host. The evening’s goal was to fix the smart home.
Turner, the senior director for Google Smart Home Ecosystem, met with Erickson, a former software engineer at Google to discuss solutions to the major problems in the smart home. These were reliability, connectivity, setup and “the multi-platform issue”. Although this was not the first meeting between the companies, it was a significant step in the ongoing effort of the Zigbee Alliance in bringing the industry together to address the problem of interoperability in smart homes.
Turner recalls that Grant, who was also president at the time of the Thread Group, had been leading internal conversations at Google about how to fix some of the larger problems in smart home. “We knew that we had the necessary foundational technologies to address this problem, but there was still a lot to do. Grant made a proposal. Both the Amazon and Apple people had their own views. We all saw the bigger picture of what was needed.
Turner recalls that they left the meeting with a draft of a proposal that was agreed upon by all parties, and a commitment to work on it further. It was initially known internally as Project Unity. However, it was made public as Project Chip (Connected home over IP) just before CES 2020. Shortly thereafter, along with a rebranding of the Zigbee Alliance and the Connectivity Standards Alliance, the Woodside dinner resulted in Matter: The new interoperability smarthome standard and unprecedented industry alliance.
The Verge spoke to Turner before Google I/O this week in order to learn more about how the company plans on implementing Matter later this year, and what it will mean to users of Google’s Nest products as well as the Google Home app.
Google has confirmed that all Nest-branded smart speakers and displays will receive an over-the–air firmware update to support Matter. This will allow you to use Google’s voice assistant to control any Matter enabled device in your home, regardless of who made it. It will also update the Google Home speaker. The Nest Wi-Fi Max, Nest Hub Max and Nest Hub (2nd Generation) will all be updated to support Matter. Thread is a low power mesh networking protocol that allows devices and other devices to communicate locally without the need for a hub. Border routers are used to route information around your home. Matter is also dependent on Thread.
The Google Nest Hub Max will become one of three Google Nest devices that can act as a Thread border router once Matter arrives. Photo by Vjeran Pavic/The Verge
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Matter has changed a lot since that first meeting. There have been setbacks and delays. Do you still believe in your original vision? That it is being carried out and that you are on track to achieve the Woodside dinner goals three years ago?
Michele Turner: I do. It’s actually exceeding our original vision in certain ways. It’s been incredibly encouraging to see the enthusiasm, the adoption, and the number of businesses that have joined the CSA or the Matter workgroup. It’s amazing to be at 200 companies.
I believe the CSA made the right decision regarding the latest delay. We must ensure that people have high-quality devices at their homes. It must work correctly. This is a complex task. Partners must ensure that multi-admin works correctly [a key feature in Matter that allows devices and platforms to work together simultaneously], that they are not only working with the Google Nest controller devices but also with the Amazon controller devices as well as the Apple controller devices and the Samsung controller devices. This is a complex task.
What will Matter do to improve the Google Home user’s smart home experience?
Google Home users will see the biggest changes in Matter where they get their devices set up. It took me 45 minutes just to set up four lights at my mother in law’s house. It shouldn’t have taken so long. It will be much simpler in the end.
The second part is the speed and reliability of the local network. This has been a major problem for users. My team spent a lot time working with partners to improve reliability and reduce latency. Because if it’s slower than a light switch, then what’s the point? Matter is going to significantly reduce latency and improve reliability of devices in the home, according to our belief.
Interoperability between users will be a major part of the future, according to me. We love the Google Assistant being available to everyone, but the truth is that people have both Android and iPhone phones at home. Some people want to use HomeKit. We don’t have this level of compatibility for users today. It’s difficult, I think. Users will be able to benefit from multi-admin working well between these ecosystems.
Our long-term goal is then to create what we call the proactive house. How can we create a truly proactive home that is beneficial to users, rather than having many connected devices? It is going to be fundamental to this. It is the architecture that creates a proactive home. We cannot keep our promise if we don’t have a home that is reliable, if things don’t run locally, and if they don’t work consistently.
The proactive home is actually that intelligence layer. It can predict when I will go upstairs at 10 at night and turn on the lights. Or, if I’m watching TV at 9:30 PM, my kids are asleep and I receive a notification on my smartphone that the lights have been turned on in the child’s bedroom. Is someone sick? Is someone watching YouTube? Being able to do anomaly detection. Matter can’t do this. It’s essential to be able enable the rest. The foundation of the smart home, or the core of the home, is what makes it work.
Image: Google Nest
Are you ready to implement features like this? Is it possible to expect a major shift in how we use our Google smart home from Day One? Or will this be a slower build?
It will be more of an incremental build. First, we need to get intelligence signals to start coming in. Then we have to apply machine learning to them. We need to have enough intelligence signals coming in so that we can build machine-learning models and algorithms around them to begin building those predictive models.
Some of that data is available on the cloud right now. It’s been used in the Home and Away routine. We use the geofence signals as well as the PIR sensor in the thermostat to drive off. This took us many years to do. We have a lot data coming in from these sources. As a first-party device, we will use Matter sensors. Sensors are essential to be able to understand and drive this type of predictive intelligence in the home. … It will take time to build the models and bring in the signals. They must work correctly. You don’t want lights to go on at 2AM when there is a problem with the signal.
You mentioned that sensors are the key to the smart house. Are there other ways that Google is sensing than little white plastic boxes, or are you exploring other options? You discussed technologies such as ultra wideband for fine location tracking at the Google Smart Home Developers Summit last January. These technologies could be implemented in the smart house. Is this something that Matter is able to do? Is it something that’s tied to Matter?
It is not directly connected to Matter. To make the home more frictionless, we’re currently working with third-party UWB partners. For the smart home area, Google is currently working with third-party partners. They are mainly interested in how UWB signals can be used to create frictionless entry. This means that your security system will not turn off when you enter. This is a possibility.
How will Google Nest devices work with Thread and Matter? It has been announced which devices will be upgraded to Matter and which ones will be border routers. We’d love to know how it works in the Google smart house powered by Matter.
Our Nest Hub Max will be able act as Thread border routers. We’re also actively looking at other devices that might need Thread, since Thread has been an integral part of our strategy for a while. We are now looking at the home’s topology. We know what the average number of devices is in homes and we want to expand this Thread footprint with our partners like Nanoleaf. We’ve had many conversations about how to get more Thread border routers into homes so that we can have a truly fast network. Google can only have so many.
We have committed to our Nest Thermostat on Matter. However, we are still evaluating whether the learning thermostat can handle Matter. It does have Thread. It does not have Thread, but that doesn’t mean it can run Matter.
Google Nest Image
When the Nest Thermostat(s), or any other Nest device, is upgraded to Matter, it will be possible to control it using an Apple HomeKit controller (such a HomePod, Apple’s Home app, etc.) with Matter.
Yes, that’s the multi-admin feature. My HomeKit controller, my HomePod or Apple TV, should be able control my thermostat if I want both HomeKit (and Google Home) running in my house.
A Matter controller cannot control another Matter controller, so a Nest Hub cannot control a HomePod Mini. There is a big difference between end devices and controller devices. Controller devices behave differently.
Manufacturers will still need to certify their devices for each platform, along with Matter certification and Thread (where applicable). If they don’t receive the Google certification, will they still have controllability by Google Assistant or a Google Nest smart speaker/display?
If they decide to use our APIs we will certify them to ensure that they have implemented the API correctly. They will be able to access the Works with Google Home badge. They can, however, do a generic lightbulb certification with Matter and get their bulb working with Matter. As long as the Nest Hub is compatible with the home, the Google Home app can be used to set up the device and control it.
Matter is complex, as you’ve already said. There’s a lot of expectation placed on it. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Matter right now?
I believe the biggest misconception about Matter is that it will solve all problems in IoT. It doesn’t have an intelligent layer that will automatically give you the proactive home. It solves three fundamental problems. It makes it easier to set up most of the devices people use in their homes. It’s not the majority of the device types, but the majority that people have in their homes.
It makes the IoT faster and more reliable. It will solve the multi-admin problem. It will provide interconnectivity between devices that we don’t have today, which is really great for users. It’s not yet, but it will be a lot more. It solves what we believe are the core problems that have impeded mainstream adoption in the past.
It is clear that connectivity is the key issue that needs to be solved. To attract users, the platforms will need to be different from other platforms that offer everything. What will make people choose Google Home over any other platform?
Matter is a platform that helps device makers level the playing field. They’re all becoming a little more commodified. They’re concerned about that. According to the CSA, 130 devices are on track for launch with Matter. There are still tens of thousands of devices. There is still much to be done.
Some developers are cautiously waiting to see what happens because they fear being commoditized. These developers will be offered by Google — I spoke about it at the Smart Home Developer Summit and we’ll have more information at I/O – the ability to collaborate with us to build automations using our platform. This will allow them to differentiate.
We are not experts in lighting, home cleaning, or leak detection. This is what our partners do. We want to create the best platform for Android so that they can differentiate and offer new experiences to users. That’s what I believe is the value.
Google will have key offerings in intelligence in context that developers can use to build compelling and next-generation solutions.