Google has been publicly building small radar chips since 2015. They can tell you how well you sleep, control a smartwatch, count sheets of paper, and let you play the world’s smallest violin. But the company’s Soli radar hasn’t necessarily had commercial success, especially in a ill-fated Pixel phone. Now, Google has launched an open-source API standard called Ripple, which could theoretically bring the technology to other devices outside of Google — perhaps even a car, as Ford is one of the participants in the new standard.
Technically, Ripple is under the auspices of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the same industry association that hosts the CES trade show in Las Vegas every January, but there’s little doubt who is actually behind the project. “Ripple will unlock useful innovation that benefits everyone. General purpose radar is an important emerging technology for resolving critical use cases in a privacy-respecting manner.” reads a quote from Ivan Poupyrev, the man who led the team at Google’s ATAP skunkworks that Soli came up with in the first place.
Additionally, the Ripple project on Github is full of references to Google, including several instances of “Copyright 2021 Google LLC”, and contributors must sign an open source license agreement from Google to participate. (One commit points out that the project was updated “to include CTA”.) Ripple appears to be a rebrand of Google’s “Standard Radar API,” which it quietly proposed a year ago (PDF).
All that doesn’t make it any less exciting, though, that Soli might be finding new life, and the idea that radar has privacy benefits might have something to do with it. It is a technology that can easily detect if someone is present, nearby and/or telling their device to do something without the need for a microphone or camera.
Ford, for his part, relates: The edge that indoor radar could become part of its driver assistance technologies. Right now, the automaker says it’s instead using “advanced outdoor radars” to investigate those features (which sounds expensive to me). Here’s a statement from Ford’s Jim Buczkowski, who currently heads the company’s Research and Advanced Engineering team:
We’re exploring how we can use interior radar as a sensor source to enhance a variety of customer experiences beyond our industry-leading Ford Co-Pilot360 driver assistance technologies that today use advanced exterior radars. A standard API, with the participation of the semiconductor industry, allows us to develop software independently of the hardware sourcing and gives the software teams the space to innovate across multiple radar platforms.
Other companies are also investigating radar: Amazon is similarly investigating whether radar can help it monitor your sleep patterns; This smart dog collar uses miniature radar to monitor vital signs even if your dog is super furry or furry, and this light bulb does the same for humans. But most of the participants listed under Google’s initiatives are chip and sensor suppliers for now. Only Ford and Blumio – who have a development kit for a radar-based blood pressure sensor – stand out.