Sleeping with the Google nest hub

Article By : Brian Dipert

Motion- and respiration-enhanced sleep tracking is all well and good, as long as your bedmate doesn't mind the intrusive-to-some technology that implements constantly-listening and -scanning widget.

Back in October 2020EDN published my teardown of Google’s then-named Home Hub smart speaker and display, originally introduced two years earlier and subsequently renamed the first-generation Google Nest Hub. The second-generation iteration of the concept, unveiled in March 2021, notably added support for Project Soli, a low-power “miniature radar” also found in Google’s soon-obsolete Pixel 4 smartphone. This March, the 2nd-gen Nest Hub briefly went on sale at various retailers; I bought one (in a “chalk” base color, one of four available options) for $54.99 at Target, versus a $99.99 MSRP. It’s ironically back on sale as I write these words for $59.99 at various merchants including Google’s own online store, in advance of Father’s Day.

My motivation for picking one up was two-fold: unsurprisingly to long-time readers, I plan to eventually tear it down and compare it to its first-generation forebear (which, I believe, is at this point the only mass-produced example of a product based on—in this case converted to run onGoogle’s next-generation Fuchsia operating system…but I digress…). Google claims, for example that the 2nd-gen Nest Hub has a 50% better bass response than its 1st-generation predecessor; I’d be curious to sort out the design origins of this enhancement. I also want to take a look at the Soli design implementation. And nearer term, I was also curious to try out Soli’s capabilities, not just for use as a face-unlock facility and a touchless gesture interface on the Pixel 4 (where more recently, Soli has also found use in diagnosing and measuring Alzheimer’s disease progression). On the Nest Hub, Google also touts Soli’s sleep tracking competencies.

I’ve long slumbered with a Garmin smartwatch on my wrist, whose integrated pulse and motion sensors discern a semblance of sleep state at any point in time (and whose logged data ends up in Google Fit courtesy of a third-party app,  Health Sync). I’ve also tried dedicated-function sleep trackers. Given all that, you might wonder what the big deal is with a short-range radar-inclusive smart display that makes declarations of even more accurate results.

The basis for Google’s claims is multifold: first off, the Nest Hub includes a microphone that enables it to determine if you’re, say, snoring (a possible symptom of sleep apnea) or talking in your sleep (reflective of a dream state). An integrated ambient light sensor also measures and logs room brightness over time. More meaningfully, Soli’s short-range millimeter wave tech aspires to discern your sleep position (back, stomach, or either side) at any point in time, as well as how much you move around in your sleep over time. And Google claims that Soli can even detect the rising and falling patterns of your chest, thereby measuring respiration.

Suffice it to say that the combination of a microphone and a “camera” (which it’s really not, but close enough for my wife’s privacy-concern purposes…that said, the larger Nest Hub Max sibling does include a visible light camera) would have made testing sleep tracking on the Nest Hub—or even its very presence—in our bedroom an unacceptable proposition. Instead, I packed it in my luggage for a week-long business trip, my first in more than two years due to the pandemic, to Silicon Valley back in May. Also taking up room in my suitcase was a mini router:

which is handy when traveling for sharing a common “WAN” (i.e., hotel-provided internet) connection across multiple devices, especially when some of them (such as my Chromecast with Google TV) don’t support browser-based network login capabilities, and/or if the hotel would normally limit the number of per-guest room concurrent devices connected to the network. In this particular case, the hotel—the Santa Clara, CA Hyatt Regency, to be exact—only offered Wi-Fi, not in-room wired Ethernet, so I set up the mini router in “repeater” mode.

I’ll begin with some “unboxing” photos taken on top of my hotel bed:

Here’s our test subject, freed from its confines:

Underneath it are more goodies:

A few scant pieces of paperwork:

and the “wall wart” power supply:

which didn’t work well with the outlets in my hotel room (fortunately, the staff came through with a power strip):

completed the box contents.

Initial setup was straightforward, involving both the Home Hub and a mobile device running the Google Home app, and requiring that the two pieces of hardware be able to “see” each other both (initially) over Bluetooth and (eventually) over Wi-Fi (keep reading for more on the latter):

Next it was time to set up the device’s sleep monitoring-specific aspects. Once again, setup employed both the Home Hub and a smartphone or tablet (my Pixel 4a 5G, in this specific instance, although Google also provides relevant apps for iOS devices). And in this case, it involved both the Google Home app (for configuration) and Google Fit (the daily data destination, the same as with my Garmin smartwatch-plus-Health Sync combo).

Due to previously diagnosed sleep apnea, I use a CPAP machine when I slumber (yes, I dragged it along to Silicon Valley, too). I was concerned that the constant hum of the machine, coupled with the hiss of air going through the tubing and headset and into my nostrils, might complicate the Home Hub’s listening task. Then again, the fundamental point of the CPAP is to preclude snoring, after all, so…anyway, I lay down on the bed, let the Home Hub scan my bod, and in a few seconds, I was good to go:

While I was at it, I also activated the gesture interface, which admittedly was pretty slick:

So, how’d it all go? Seemingly great, at least at first and at least for the first night (Saturday, May 14, 2022, for those interested in such minutia). Although the respiration and other additional-and-enhanced (versus the Garmin-derived baseline) data I got was interesting, I have no way of knowing how accurate it is in the absence of a cross-reference with another concurrently operating sleep monitoring setup. It also ended up being inconsistent phone-to-phone and day to day, even for a given usage day (keep reading). Here are my initial results for that (Saturday) night, retroactively accessed and screen-shot via my large-display Microsoft Surface Duo from the Google Fit cloud archive:

Sunday night, May 15 was a different matter. For one thing, the band Coldplay was playing loudly at nearby Levi’s Stadium, audibly challenging my transition to sleep. And for another, although the mini router-generated local network had been solid the prior night, its WAN connection kept dropping that night (I suspect the hotel network, not the router itself, had gone amiss). Each “drop”, my smartphone emitted a loudly audible alert. And I didn’t want to mute these alerts in case my wife back home were to try to reach me. So yeah…not-so-great sleep, including around an hour’s worth of being fully awake from just past 3 AM to past 4 AM. See for yourself (this time screen-shot using the Surface Duo shortly after awakening):

Turns out, however, that the network at this particular hotel—or at least my level at the hotel—didn’t require a web browser-based login (a requirement which, if it had existed, not only the Chromecast with Google TV but also the Nest Hub can’t support). So, I then had the bright idea to switch my smartphone to a direct hotel Wi-Fi connection instead. Unfortunately, the tether to the Nest Hub was immediately severed, and my attempts to reconnect the two devices were unsuccessful for in-retrospect obvious reasons…the security inherent to guest-accessible hotel networks doesn’t allow concurrently connected devices to “see” each other:

No way was I going to deal with more nights filled with alert beeps, so the experiment ended.

Here’s where things got weird from a data-collection and -analysis standpoint. The Garmin smartwatch is Bluetooth-connected to my (personal use) Surface Duo and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, passes its logged pulse and step count and other data to the Google Fit cloud data repository nexus via Health Sync. To avoid messing any of that up, I’d instead (also as previously mentioned) paired the Nest Hub to my other (work) smartphone, the Pixel 4a 5G. In this case, Nest Hub-logged data transfers directly to Google Fit without need for a third-party intermediary. Finally, as mentioned earlier, I hadn’t screen-shot my Saturday night results right away…I went back and looked at them a few weeks later. At that same time, out of curiosity I looked at my Sunday night results again…which were now notably different than before:

I rationalized this discrepancy with the theory that when I’d initially looked at Sunday night’s results on the Surface Duo, they only comprehended the data captured by its directly connected Garmin smartwatch; data from the Nest Hub connected to the other smartphone hadn’t yet been uploaded and merged with the smartwatch-sourced data at the cloud. But then I looked at the Google Fit cloud-sourced data using the app running on the Pixel 4a 5G…and both days’ results were also quite different (not to mention comparatively incomplete…note the missing heart rate and respiratory rate graphs) than seen on the Surface Duo. Saturday:

And Sunday:

That all said, I realize that what I’ve described here are somewhat atypical usage scenarios. Very few folks are going to drag a Nest Hub along with them when they travel, and home networks are inherently more “friendly” from a multi-device intercommunication standpoint, for example. And having two Google Fit-supportive devices concurrently logging data, particularly in conjunction with their being connected to different smartphones, is also relatively uncommon. That latter point said, though, although Android Wear-powered watches have historically represented only a sliver of the smartwatch market, Google’s early-2021 acquisition of Fitbit will make such scenarios increasingly common going forward.

More generally, both Home-now-Nest Hub generations are useful information-access portals, especially for those who’ve invested in the broader Google hardware-and-data-and-services ecosystem…especially if you can find one on sale for nearly half-off retail! If you sleep alone, or your mattress companion doesn’t mind a constantly-listening and -scanning bedside widget, you might want to give a Nest Hub a shot. Just treat the results with appropriate skepticism.

Got questions or thoughts on the Nest Hub, for sleep tracking specifically and/or as a smart device more generally? Sound off in the comments!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

This article was originally published on EDN.

 

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