Since leaving Google in 2014, Android co-founder Andy Rubin has been working on a mysterious new company named Playground Global. At Code Mobile in August last year, Rubin described the firm as a way to "amplify ideas" — which sounds cool but is frustratingly vague. Information about the company has been leaking out drip by drip, but now, with the help of a blog post from Rubin, we're finally getting a clearer picture of just how ambitious its goals are.
"the pendulum of innovation is shifting."
Playground itself is a combination of a venture fund, startup incubator, and a hardware and software company, with $300 million to invest, and a dozen companies already on its books. In a blog post, Rubin describes how his first company, Danger, spent $240 million in 2001 to create a smartphone, and how that same project today would cost just $3 million. This, he says, is why "the pendulum of innovation is shifting from software back to hardware, or, more specifically, hardware that uses software to do interesting things."
With this in mind, Playground wants to help create the gadgets of the future by offering companies a library of ready-made hardware and software allowing anyone to build the next big thing.
Take artificial intelligence, for example. Neural networks are everywhere in the tech world at the moment, and the industry's biggest companies — including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — have beefed up their AI teams to create new products and improve existing services. So how does a startup compete with that sort of deep knowledge? The answer is to have a catalog of pre-made AI tools that companies can pick and choose from. Playground wants to offer these tools, using them to take the pressure off startups in the same way that Android enabled smartphone manufacturers to build new phones without worrying about software.
Andy Rubin speaking at Code Mobile last year.
Playground, though, will go one step further, also offering its own hardware: sensors and components that companies can simply click into their product, created by a division in the company named the Studio. A report from Wired on Playground gives the example of a drone startup that needs a new microphone array: instead of having to do the research themselves and find the best mics, they just ask the Studio. "It’s modular hardware," Rubin tells Wired. "A couple of years from now, you could roll in here with an idea, and we could just rearrange these modules."
Playground's headquarters is large enough to hold 30 startups and is fully equipped with all the tools and equipment a company might need to create. "We have thermoplastic and multimaterial printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, metal sintering 3D printers, spectrum analyzers, network test equipment, RF test chambers, [and] optic labs," writes Rubin. In addition to the dozen startups it's already working with, Playground will also build its own products — Rubin mentions a dashboard camera that will be given away for free in exchange for users' data.
A global infrastructure for gadgets
However, the end goal of Playground is more ambitious than just a supercharged startup incubator. Ultimately, the company wants to create a whole new infrastructure connecting the world's gadgets. From its description, this sounds like an operating system for the Internet of Things (something that companies including Google and Huawei are already working on), but connected to a cloud computer that has "mature deep-learning capabilities" and adjusts to users' needs on the fly.
Rubin's description sound a little fantastical, bringing to mind the AI computers that control homes or even whole planets in sci-fi books and movies. However, as The Verge's own Dan Seifert pointed out recently, our smartphones have already powered a quiet revolution, enabling a network of products and devices that are woven into our lives — everything from Spotify to Apple Pay. And as one of the pioneers of Android, an OS with roughly 85 percent of the global smartphone market, Rubin perhaps has better reason than most to be confident in his ability to create the future.