Google's 'Nearby' Lets Your Smartphone Talk to the Internet of Things

The app located the nearest vending machine and told it to fetch me a chocolate bar.

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Jun 30 2014, 4:10pm
Image: Shutterstock

We know that more and more things are now connected to the internet. What we don’t know is which things, and how exactly we can interact with these smart objects. That’s where projects like Google’s Nearby app and Apple’s iBeacon come into play.

When I fired up the Nearby app at the Google I/O conference last week, it started searching for connected things and people around me. I tapped on “vending machine” and was taken to the object’s website: a single page with a GIVE ME A CHOCOLATE BAR button on it. Tapping that button made the vending machine a few feet away spit out a Snickers.

My smartphone fetched a Snickers bar for me at Google I/O. Image: Author 

The vending machine, rigged with an Arduino unit and Raspberry Pi microprocessor, is just one example of a new way of interacting with the things around us, by handily connecting the vast majority of objects to the internet via low-powered Bluetooth.

Google product strategist Scott Jenson explained that he’d set up dozens of the little Bluetooth emitters across the Moscone Center where the conference was held. The ultimate goal is to get manufacturers to start building the tiny low-energy chips right into devices—toaster ovens, pill bottles, other people’s smartphones, you name it.

Nearby works like this. An enabled object broadcasts a short description of itself and a URL to devices nearby listening. Those URLs are grabbed and listed by the app, and tapping on one brings you to the object’s webpage, where you can interact with it—say, tell it to perform a task. The automatically searches for connected people and objects in close proximity, without any user intervention.

It’s the same idea as Apple’s iBeacon, but the open source experiment is still in its infancy, Jenson said. Android Nearby can’t at this point, for example, send push notifications or measure proximity to an enabled object. “It’s not ready to be a product at this point,” said Jenson.

But it’s not hard to imagine the impact such a product, once finished, could have. Like iBeacon, there are clear future applications in the retail industry, bridging the divide between online shopping and brick-and-mortar stores.

Controlling appliances and gadgets is another likely plan for the fledgling technology, taking aim at Apple’s home automation system, which it announced at its developer conference this month. Nearby was rumored to be revealed at this year’s I/O conference, but wasn’t mentioned by presenters. Android Police speculated at the time about the app’s future uses:

It's easy to imagine Nearby coming in handy for extremely targeted Wallet offers, reminders, or other location-based interactions, but the important part here is that a user wouldn't need to interact with their phone or tablet to let other devices (be they mobile or otherwise) know they are around, and switching on Nearby once would allow the functionality to work with all of a user's devices.

This would open up the possibility of automated functionality in tons of spaces beyond the commercial world, from home automation to everyday user-to-user interaction, to the interaction between your own devices.

Clearly there are privacy and security concerns here, as hackers have widely exploited Bluetooth to get into a places they aren’t supposed to get into, like smartphones and cars. I think that’s why Jenson stressed that Nearby is still an experiment, not a consumer-ready product. Developers are still coding our cyberpunk networked future.