Author Archives: Molly

How leading Google One is like solving a puzzle

When office life became video call life in 2020, people around the world experienced the drain of remote meetings. Larissa Fontaine might be the one exception. “Video calls can be hard because you’re just moving from one thing to the next...but I also get a lot of energy from them,” she says with a smile. “I realized I actually like jumping from topic to topic.” Holding up her notebook, she admits one caveat: “But I have to write things down! Otherwise I won’t retain it all.” 

By “it all,” Larissa means the many product teams she meets with every day. Larissa is the vice president of Google One, a subscription service that includes cloud storage and extra benefits to give users peace of mind, such as automatic phone backup, enhanced security features, family sharing…the list goes on. This role requires her to act as something of a puzzle master, making sure everything works together just right, so that different departments, partners and ultimately — most importantly — customers get what they need. Luckily, she’s up to the task. “I enjoy problem-solving,” she says. “I find it really invigorating.”

How would you describe your job to someone who doesn’t work in tech?

I say I work on Google One, which is a subscription that gives you more storage and premium features across different Google products — basically, a membership to help you get more out of Google. I work with Googlers across different areas like engineering, marketing and design to figure out how to make Google One even more valuable for our members. 

What are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of your job?

They’re the same thing: partnering with so many different teams and products across the entire company. It can be complicated trying to solve for the needs of that many product areas. At the same time, when teams come together and find a great solution, it’s exciting. I am always impressed with the creativity and collaboration required to make amazing experiences for users that also work really well for different products and our partners.

Did you always want to work in tech?

I took a mechanical engineering class in college, and it was sort of like “MacGyver,” where you have things like foam core and string and tape and you have to figure out how to precisely move an object across the room without picking it up. I loved figuring out ways to solve these crazy problems, I loved being part of a team, and I loved being super hands-on building things. I ended up majoring in mechanical engineering and then also getting my master’s degree in mechanical engineering. 

I want to hear how you’re doing, what’s going on in the rest of your life — and then we can get into the potentially harder, thornier stuff we need to talk about.

How have you seen the subscription model take over tech?

The open, free internet is still incredibly important, and ad-supported models provide significant value to users. There are also cases where ad-supported solutions may not be the right fit. Subscriptions are growing across industries, not just tech. Car companies are building subscriptions, kids’ clothing companies — there are many examples. And it’s because people rightfully expect ongoing value for the things they buy. Buying something that’s one-and-done, that doesn’t consistently get better, isn’t as appealing. Tech lends itself particularly well to this idea, because we can provide more innovation and continuous improvements over time. 

What’s a habit or routine that helps you in your job?  

I have a habit of spending the first few minutes of every meeting just connecting with my coworkers, especially in video calls. Having an awareness of other people's overall wellbeing is personally important to me, and I also think it helps us work better together. I want to hear how you’re doing, what’s going on in the rest of your life — and then we can get into the potentially harder, thornier stuff we need to talk about. It makes my work a lot more enjoyable and I think it makes the people I work with feel the same — at least I hope so! 

We created these values for our team a couple of years ago, and one of them is “woohoo often.” It sounds silly, but we do a group “woohoo!” out loud when we have a win or hit a milestone, personal or work-related. We kept it going throughout working from home, and it felt a little strange at first to cheer “woohoo!” over a video call, but it’s actually been great. 

What’s something about you that would surprise people? 

I did gymnastics growing up and was on the national team for about nine years and I competed on two world championship teams. I have a move named after me, the Fontaine. It was considered difficult at the time, but you’ll see far more impressive skills from Simone Biles in Tokyo!

It’s a hot one: How heat waves have trended over time

I live in the Pacific Northwest, a part of North America known for cooler weather and notoriously gray skies. So imagine my surprise when temperatures hit 116 degrees Fahrenheit over the past few days. And did I mention that, like many other PNWers, I don’t have air conditioning? Every morning lately, my Google Assistant delivers the slightly worrying news that the temperature is ticking up.

The heat wave is all anyone here — and in other affected areas — can talk about. U.S. searches about heat waves and sunscreen reached all time record highs this month, and “air conditioner installation service” spiked more than 2,150% over the same period of time. (To little surprise, search interest in air conditioning peaks every summer — but you can see that they’ve been rising every year.) 

Graph showing search interest in "air conditioning."

Since many of us are searching for this kind of information, I decided to take a trip down Ngrams lane to see how exactly we’ve talked about (er, I suppose “written about”) extreme summer weather over time. As a quick refresher, Ngrams was launched in 2009 by the Google Books team. The tool shows how books and other pieces of writing have used certain words or phrases over time, so you can see how popular (or unpopular) they’ve been throughout the years. 

I started with the classic “heat wave,” which has steadily risen over time. I also tried “a hot one,” and given how that phrase could apply to so many different use cases (outdoor temperatures but also meals, items, etc.), it’s been relatively steady. 

Graph showing ngrams results for "heat wave" and "a hot one."

I decided to try “scorcher” and the more specific “summer scorcher.” 

Graph showing ngrams results for "scorcher."
Graph showing ngrams results for "summer scorcher."

The semi-consistent dips in “summer scorcher” suggest that the phrase was likely only used the summer. But what about that huge peak in just plain “scorcher” in 1896? Below the graph, there’s an option to choose the time period from 1892 to 1897 and see how the word was used in books that have been uploaded to Google Books vast digital library. To my surprise, “scorcher” at this point in time didn’t refer to a tortuously hot day: In many cases, it was used to talk about someone who raced bicycles. 

Google Books search result showing a use of the word 'scorcher' from 1897 where it describes a person writing a bike.

So now when you hear someone say “today’s going to be a scorcher,” I hope you’ll also tell them about the word’s past life. As for me, I’m heading back to the search bar to learn more about another trending search that really hits home: “how to stay cool without ac.”

Tips and tricks from Google’s resident iOS expert

Luke Wroblewski has been thinking about mobile design since...well, since mobile design was a thing. “I got my start in the mid-90s developing tools for scientists working with the first graphical web browser at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications,” he says. “Back then, people thought the internet was mostly just for scientists to share data.” But Luke was looking at what else could be done with the web, and like many other people, he realized very early on that the future was mobile.

“I remember back then, the mindset was, ‘People aren’t going to watch videos on their phones, and people aren’t going to buy anything on their phones,’” he says. “But it was clear this was going to grow and it was going to grow really fast.” Today, Luke doesn’t just work on one mobile app — he works on nearly 100 of them. As the lead of the iOS at Google team, he coordinates all of Google’s iOS apps.

Luke’s job is to make sure Google’s entire family of products work as well on iOS as they do on Android — and that Google apps make use of the latest iOS functionality to work better with people’s iPhones, iPads and more. “We really want people to see that having our products on their iPhone makes Google more helpful for them,” he says. “And every time Apple updates its operating system, it just gives us even more opportunities to make Google apps better by taking advantage of the new things these devices are capable of.”

Given his expertise, we asked Luke to run us through some of his favorite things you can do with Google apps on iOS. Here are his iOS Google app power user tips:

Widgets, your way: “Right now, everybody does this dance of open the phone, find the app, tap the app, open the app, go to the feature tap on the feature, and on and on… so we’ve been doing a bunch of things to try and bring the most useful stuff to you when you need it instead.” Like widgets, Luke says, which let you easily access key features of your Google apps from your homescreen. Luke’s favorite is the Google Photos widget, which shows Memories featuring his photos from years past, recent highlights, favorite activities and more without any action on his part.  

Rendering of various Google products as iPhone widgets.

Personalize your Search widget:While he loves his Photos widget, there’s nothing quite like having the world’s information just a tap away with the Google Search widget. And now, you can personalize your Search widget backgrounds and skins, and even have them refresh daily. Coming from a design background, Luke loves the ability to make his widget look uniquely his own on his home screen. 

Chrome mobile to desktop handoff:“One feature I use a lot is moving a Chrome tab from my phone to my desktop,” Luke says. With Handoff, you can start browsing a website on your iPhone and easily continue on your Mac. “So if I’m on a webpage on my phone and I sit down at my desk, the Chrome icon pops up in the Dock on my Mac with that link and, boom, I can transition easily.”

Image showing the Chrome Dino widget next to a Chrome widget showing the Search bar.

Bonus! If you need a little break, check out the Chrome Dino widget, part of the latest Chrome release. The hidden game shows itself on the new tab page when Chrome is offline — but now you can quickly launch it right from your homescreen. Just watch out for that cactus...

Send directions to your iPhone from your computer: You can send directions to your iOS device in Maps. Just click the ‘Send to your phone’ button on desktop Maps. Luke finds this particularly helpful when he’s about to head out the door. “This is something that’s really important to us: Integrations not only between our apps, but between various devices and platforms,” Luke says. “If you see a phone number, you should be able to click on it to call — same with directions. You should be able to send them wherever you need to.” 

Instant news delivery:Luke’s also a big fan of his Siri shortcut for Google News. Siri shortcuts automatically detect your app usage routines and suggest them when you’re most likely to undertake them, like reading the news every morning and afternoon. “I think it’s a really useful experience when commonly used actions, like checking the news, just show up on your phone when you need them,” Luke says. You can create your own shortcuts with the Shortcuts app. 

Easily toggle incognito mode:In the Google App, long press your avatar to switch to Incognito Mode. This can be especially helpful if you need to use your iPhone as a work and personal device.

Privacy screen: If you’re doing work in public and want an extra layer of privacy, you can require Face or Touch ID to login to your Google Drive app to keep your files private.

Let Assistant find your phone:Of course, the most useful app tip is what to do when you can’t even find your phone. “If you lose your phone, which does all of this cool stuff I just mentioned, don’t worry,” says Luke. “You can use Assistant.” All you have to do is have the Google Assistant app enabled — prior to losing it — and then say, “Hey Google, where’s my phone?” And then you can get back to playing Chrome Dino. 

Two Googlers meet for the first time at I/O

Mike Pegg has never missed an I/O. “There’s a magic about it,” he says. “It’s sort of like seeing Google come to life, right?” Mike leads Developer Relations for the Google Maps Platform team, and when we spoke via Google Meet a few days before I/O, he was gearing up to present at the conference from his Bay Area home. Gearing up, literally.

“My tech check for my AMA will happen...right here,” he says looking around his desk at home. “I literally had a suitcase sent to me with all my camera gear and microphones. I even bought some ethernet cabling so I’m not competing with my son’s gaming on our WiFi!” 

While Mike’s AMA would broadcast from his home, up until recently he thought he wouldn’t physically make it to I/O this year. Then he heard there would be a (small) audience. “I was so excited to take part, I just wanted to help out in whatever way I could.” Speakers who would be on stage at the Mountain View campus nominated colleagues to be audience members — and Mike was one of about 35 Googlers selected to sit in the audience at I/O

As was Lamon Bethel, a visual designer. Unlike Mike, Lamon had never been to I/O — in fact, he’d never been to the Mountain View campus. Based in San Francisco, he’s only been working at Google for about nine months. “The invite was sort of mysterious,” Lamon says. “It was like a Friday or Saturday and I was going through my inbox and there was this totally nondescript, cryptic email saying I’d been nominated to sign up to attend I/O.” At first he thought it was a joke — he was so new at Google, and he wasn’t a developer. He signed up anyway and soon enough, found out that he would be on site for I/O  with the small audience group. 

A person’s hand holding a plastic bag. The clear bag has a red mask inside.

 Audience members each received face masks upon arrival.

Lamon would be diving head first into the world of Google — as well as into the now-unique experience of seeing so many people at the same time. “It was energizing just to be in touch with all the I/O folks throughout the planning process,” he said before the event. “When I’m actually in the presence of other people, and seeing the presenters...I’m so curious what that will feel like!” 

When I talked to Mike and Lamon a few days before I/O, it was the first time they “met,” though they knew they would both be in the audience. They don’t work in the same department, so it’s likely that even if they’d been working in offices this year, their paths wouldn’t have crossed. But both of them said they couldn’t wait to be on site at I/O, experiencing an event happening in front of them, in real life. 

Of course, they were also just looking forward to meeting. “I can’t wait to meet you, Lamon!” Mike said during our call. “This will be so cool. It will almost be like your first day at Google.” 

By all accounts, it was a good one. “The energy of the speakers, the audience members was great — it was such a seamless day,” Lamon says. Lamon got to meet coworkers for the first time, and Mike was reunited with people he’s worked with for years. “It was pretty special to not only reconnect, but also experience the magic of the I/O keynote together!”

And Lamon and Mike also met — in person — even though they were seated at different stages. “But when we had breaks and during lunch and breakfast, we found time to connect,” Lamon says. “He’s someone that I feel like I’ll always have this really unique bond with after having gone through that I/O experience together,” Mike says.

Giant cranes and video games: How I/O went digital

There’s a sign on the wall behind Andrew Rossi's desk that’s been impossible to ignore during video calls lately. The placard counted down the days until I/O 2021 — and as event lead for Consumer Apps at Google, Andrew is part of a huge team behind the whole production. While it now reads “0,” the purposefully placed sign was visible during the many virtual meetings he had with people all across Google in the run-up to an entirely different kind of I/O.

A sign on a wall above a small bookcase with changeable lettering reads: “I/O is 0 days away.”

I/O is a major undertaking under normal circumstances, and it took a unique brand of elbow grease this year. But after I/O 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic, Google’s developer relations and marketing teams couldn’t let another year pass without it. 

“Apps and the web became even more integrated into our daily lives over the past year,” says VP of Engineering Jason Titus. “They helped us stay healthy, connected and productive — and this served to spotlight how developers were really part of helping us adapt to the challenges of 2020.” 

Planning for this year’s event began nearly as soon as I/O 2020 was canceled. The team agreed on an event primarily focused on live broadcast but that also offered flexibility for participants, while also respecting how different parts of the world were experiencing the pandemic. It would be a three-day digital event, with a mix of live keynotes, pre-recorded technical sessions and interactive features — and it would be unlike anything Google had created before.  

Online, everyone’s invited

Taking the event virtual had a big upside: More of Google’s global developer community could attend, for free. This year, there were 225,000 registrations, mostly from outside the U.S. 

“Going digital meant we had the freedom to think of new ways to deliver technical content,” says Elizabeth Cha, who leads developer marketing. “It seemed the best way to be helpful to developers this year was to give greater access to our technical experts and let the developer community support one another. So beyond the usual technical sessions and Codelabs, we're offering Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions, instructor-led workshops and meetups.”

A person sitting at a desk looks into the camera on their laptop; the screen shows the person. Behind the laptop is a light and recording gear

A video technician tests out one of the at-home recording kits sent to presenters so they could record their talks from home.

Just like an in-person event involves crowd control and line management, a digital event requires building the infrastructure so everyone can participate. The team took the opportunity to make other improvements for accessibility and inclusivity — including an American Sign Language option for the two main keynotes, a first.

“This year, instead of the online experience accompanying the physical event, the online experience is the event,” says Developer Relations Product Manager Ilen Zazueta-Hall. “Scaling the event was a coordinated effort — we had to rethink so much. Like how do we scale workshops? How many languages do we translate technical content into? How do we make sure it’s accessible, and that people can connect?” 

Live, from Google I/O

While online development was crucial, there was also the challenge of broadcasting live. The team wanted to keep keynotes live because, among other things, digital burnout was a factor. “We’re all sick of sitting down in front of a screen,” VP of Marketing Marvin Chow says. The best way to fight this fatigue was with live video. “When it’s taped, you don’t get that same authenticity and connection.” 

A camera crew of several people are in the foreground, filming a stage surrounded by trees.

The production crew films the keynote dress rehearsal.

Going live was a complex process. First, Andrew and his team had to find a location. Originally, the idea was to film from Shoreline Amphitheatre, Google I/O’s home since 2016, but that was quickly dismissed. The venue, which can fit more than 22,000 people, would have felt eerie without thousands of attendees. 

So the team settled instead on Google’s “Quad” campus in Mountain View. That, too, came with unknowns. “You can’t just throw a stage on campus, because the sun would just beat down on everyone,” Andrew explains. So the team brought in giant cranes to cover the area. “We tracked things like how much the wind blows on an average day.”

Three masked people sit near a “Google” sign in adirondack chairs on a lawn.

Googlers in the I/O audience.

In addition to two stages and space for production crews, the quad could accommodate a small, socially distanced audience. “We realized we could get 15 people around one stage and 19 around another,” Andrew says. This would give presenters something to look at, and bring some energy to the broadcast. Presenters nominated fellow Googlers, so they would see familiar faces. Audience members agreed to a list of COVID-19-related requirements as well as sitting through two rehearsals in case production needed to use backup film. No phones or laptops were permitted the entire time. 

But the work was well worth it: Googlers were excited to head to campus for I/O — and each other. In some cases, colleagues even met in person for the first time.

Photo showing a group of people wearing masks standing on a circular stage on a lawn. A person in the foreground is taking a photo of them.

Googlers gather at the dress rehearsal the day before the keynote.

For everyone who couldn’t go, there was an online Adventure. 

Adventure awaits

A significant draw of I/O for developers is everything that happens IRL. “You know when you’re in line for food and you strike up a conversation with someone?” Elizabeth says. “And you find out you’re both working on the same problem or interested in similar topics and then ideas start pouring in — that’s what I/O is about.”

Enter I/O Adventure, a reimagining of what it’s like to actually be there and get your "hands on" the latest technology, complete with virtual product demos and hangout spaces where you can meet and chat with other developers. Adventure was developer advocate Tom Greenaway’s idea; he’d come up with it as a way for attendees to join in during Chrome Developer Summit (CDS) last December. It was a success, so the team decided to bring it to I/O. 

Photo showing a large group of virtual avatars in the I/O Adventure game world. Participants can earn up to 140 pieces of virtual swag.

 I/O attendees gathering inside I/O Adventure. Participants can interact with over 450 pieces of unique product content — like technical demos, videos and codelabs — and earn up to 140 pieces of virtual swag.

Tom, along with a small team of designers and programmers, collaborated with various Google product departments to craft experiences inside the game. Machine learning and AI, for example, have a musical forest where trees transform into instruments as you bump into them. “As they change, collaboratively, people all over the world will make music together,” Tom says. And Google engineers had special help testing the product — from their kids. “They did about two hours of testing in all over a weekend,” says Elizabeth, whose own children assisted. “And they wanted to play more!”

Two children sitting at a dining room table looking at an open laptop that shows the I/O Adventure game on the screen.

Elizabeth’s kids test out I/O Adventure.

Invention...and Easter eggs

Appropriately for an event that celebrates developer creativity, inventiveness is a theme that runs throughout everything the team did to make I/O happen this year. “I/O 2021 was about  meeting developers where they are and making it easier for them to innovate quickly,” Jason says. In such a daunting year,it was increasingly clear how much the world needs builders. “By helping developers, we help everyone who uses the technology they build.”

And of course, what would any Google project be without a few Easter eggs? “Do you know the Konami Code?” Tom asked during a recent demo of Adventure. “It’s up, up, down — ” ...actually, you’ll just have to find out for yourself. 

Coworkers become allies while working from home

When Shammi Quddus joined Google in 2018, she noticed she didn’t run into many other Muslims. “There are so few of us, statistically speaking,” she says. She decided to join the [email protected] group, part of the Inter Belief Network run by Googlers to empower employees to voice and practice their beliefs. She was especially impressed by the Muslim Allyship Course the group runs, which explains the basics of the faith, and how non-Muslims can be helpful allies. She soon signed up to be an instructor herself.  “Our faith practices, like daily prayers and fasting, intersect with the workplace quite a bit,” Shammi explains. 

The course was designed in 2017 by a group of Muslim Googlers, including Sarmad Gilani. “Throughout my life, I’d had bad experiences when people found out I was Muslim,” Sarmad says. That’s why he decided to join [email protected], and help create a space where people could ask questions and learn to be good allies. Demand for the course grew so rapidly instructors could hardly keep up.

The program’s momentum was encouraging, if slightly limited. The Bay Area-based group would meet every month, booking rooms at the Mountain View and Sunnyvale offices for 40 to 60 people for their panels. Every time a session was added, so many people subscribed that they had to create a waitlist. “We were trying to think about how we would start in other hubs like Seattle or New York, but that requires a critical mass of four or five Muslim Googlers to serve as instructors and panelists, and manage other on-site needs,” says Shammi. 

While considering their next move, COVID-19 struck. They’d already been interested in livestreaming classes, but the idea of being online-only was nerve-wracking. “We worried people would get bored, or wouldn’t ask any questions,” Shammi says. “What if the Meet call was full of awkward silences?!” 

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case — in fact, online sessions and meetings helped classes grow significantly. “Our pool of instructors and attendees has no geographic boundary — we have Googlers from all over the world signing up!” Shammi says. While the group has missed some of the intimacy, safety and connection of in-person meetings, they’re making use of interactive features like polls and questions to engage their online audiences. “Google Meet’s ‘raise hand’ feature is awesome!” Sarmad adds.

Shammi’s noticed more interesting questions being asked, too. “Some folks will ask why I wear the hijab, and I’ll share my journey of wearing it in the U.S. and Bangladesh,” she explains. “And then it gets really interesting when there are other hijabis in the panel who have different motivations and experiences. It just shows how diverse we are.” 

Amina Gerrbi joined [email protected] after COVID hit. She’s now one of the allyship leads and regularly checks in with participants. “We ask how they feel about certain topics, and even do quizzes sometimes. Engaging an audience for an hour and a half is challenging so having those moments that call for the audience to participate are crucial.”

Sarmad says the best part of online courses is they no longer have to turn anyone away. “That had become an issue with the in-person courses, because we wouldn’t have enough seats.” Since fall 2020, nearly 600 people have registered for online sessions, where the group has helped bring events like their Ramadan Fast-a-Thon, where Googlers can participate in fasting for a day, online. The Fast-a-Thon supports hunger relief efforts and is also an invitation to learn more about Ramadan; this year it's raised $190,000 and counting.

For Muslims everywhere, and at Google, faith is an important part of their identity, and being able to share this with colleagues all over the world has been a silver lining during the pandemic. “I love getting the chance to share personal authentic stories about growing up as a Muslim American woman and genuinely connecting with our participants,” Amina says. “And at the same time, we’re really working to break stereotypes and bust myths.”

This new emoji has been years in the making

When Jennifer Daniel, Google’s creative director for emoji, first joined the Unicode Technical Committee, she wondered, what’s the deal with the handshake emoji? Why isn’t there skin tone support? “There was a desire to make it happen, and it was possible to make it happen, but the group appeared to be stuck on how to make it happen,” Jennifer says.

Image shows a texting keyboard with various hand emojis with the Black skin tone, except the handshake emoji, which is yellow only.

So in 2019, she submitted the paperwork for Unicode to consider the addition of the multi-skin toned handshake.The proposal detailed how to create 25 possible combinations of different skin tones shaking hands. But encoding it all would be time-consuming; creating a new emoji can take up to two years, Jennifer explains. And while a regular, one-tone handshake emoji already existed, this particular addition would require making two new emoji hands (a right hand in all the various skin tone shades and a left in the various skin tone shades) in order to, as Jennifer explains, “make the ‘old’ handshake new again.” 

Every Unicode character has to be encoded; it’s like a language, with a set of rules that are communicated from a keyboard to a computer so that what you see on your screen looks the way it’s supposed to. This is called binary — or all the ones and zeros behind the scenes that make up everything you see on the internet. 

Every letter you are reading on this screen is assigned a code point. The Letter A? It’s Unicode code point U+0041, Jennifer says. When you send a word with the letter “A” to someone else, this code is what ensures they will see it. “So when we want to send a 🤦,  which maps to U+1f926, that code point must be understood on the other end regardless of what device the recipient is using,” she says.

This means when one emoji can come in different forms — like with gender or skin tone options — the coding gets more complex. “If emoji are letters, think of it this way: How many accent marks can you add to a letter? Adding more detail, like skin tone, gender or other customization options like color, to emoji gets more complicated.” Adding skin tone to the handshake emoji meant someone had to propose a solution that operated within the strict limitations of how characters are encoded.

That someone was Jennifer. “I build on the shoulders of giants,” she quickly explains. “The subcommittee is made up of volunteers, all of whom are generous with their expertise and time.” First, Jennifer looked at existing emoji to see if there were any that could be combined to generate all 25 skin tone combinations. “When it appeared that none would be suitable — for instance, 🤜 🤛 are great but also a very different greeting — we had to identify new additions That’s when we landed on adding a leftwards hand and a rightwards hand.” Once these two designs and proposals were approved and code points assigned, the team could then propose a multi-skin toned handshake that built on the newly created code for each hand.

Image showing the handshake emoji in various skin tones and skin tone combinations.

Aside from the actual coding, COVID-19 added new hurdles. Jennifer had proposed the emoji in November 2019 with the expectation it would land on devices in 2021, but because of COVID-19, all Unicode deployments were delayed six months. 

Fortunately, the multi-skin toned handshake emoji should appear in the next release, Emoji 14.0, meaning you should see it appear in 2022. For Jennifer, it’s exciting to see it finally come to fruition. “These kinds of explorations are really important because the Unicode Consortium and Google really care about bringing inclusion into the Unicode Standard,” she says. “It’s easy to identify ‘quick solutions’ but I try to stop and ask what does equitable representation really look like, and when is it just performative?”  

“Every time we add a new emoji, there’s a risk it could exclude people without our consciously knowing it,” Jennifer explains. “The best we can do is ensure emoji continue to be as broad, flexible and fluid as possible. Just like language. Just like you. 🦋”

Ask a Techspert: How can we fight energy rush hours?

Editor’s Note: Do you ever feel like a fish out of water? Try being a tech novice and talking to an engineer at a place like Google. Ask a Techspert is a series on the Keyword asking Googler experts to explain complicated technology for the rest of us. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but just enough to make you sound smart at a dinner party.

Returning from a weekend trip this past winter, my husband and I watched in real time as our security camera cut to black and our Nest app reported the thermostat had lost power. The entire neighborhood had no electricity...thanks to an ice storm that caused a tree in our very own backyard to fall. We returned to a dark, cold home, which stayed that way for two days until the power company made their way through downed trees and ice to reconnect us.

Suddenly, the lights turned on, the internet came back and best yet, we heard the gentle whir of the heater. We blasted the heat — and I have to imagine the homes around us did, too. That likely created an “energy rush hour,” something the Nest team is working on reducing through its Rush Hour Rewards program, which works with utility companies to reward you for saving energy using your Thermostat. Nest is currently celebrating Earth Day with a discount: You can get the Nest Thermostat for $99, which coupled with utility rebates could make the thermostat free for people in certain areas. 

But what exactly creates or constitutes an energy rush hour? And what role do utility companies play? 

I turned to Hannah Bascom, head of energy partnerships for Google Nest. Her job is to find ways for Google to partner with energy companies and services...and this week, to also answer my questions. 

Let’s start with the basics: Tell me about energy rush hours! 

Certain times of the year, especially when it’s very hot or cold, everyone cranks their A/C or heat in addition to all of the usual energy-consuming things we already do, so demand for energy is very high. We call these energy rush hours.

Image showing a hand adjusting a Nest Thermostat on a wall next to a circular mirror.

Then my neighborhood definitely created an energy rush hour this winter during the ice storm. So when everyone cranks their heat or A/C, what do the utility companies do?

 When demand for energy spikes, utility companies typically turn on additional power plants — which are often very expensive and emit a lot of carbon dioxide. And as more people need increasing amounts of energy in their homes and businesses, energy rush hours happen more frequently. We’ve seen several examples of brownouts recently — utilities didn’t have enough power to supply everyone, so they had to shut off power in certain places. As extreme weather events become more common this could happen more regularly, so utilities are considering building more power plants, which is costly and could increase carbon emissions.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Utilities can incentivize customers to use less energy.

How? I can’t imagine not blasting my heat when it was so cold. 

Nest’s Rush Hour Rewards is one way people automatically lower energy use during energy rush hours without being uncomfortable in their homes. Think about using GPS during a traffic jam: You’re sitting on the highway and it reroutes you to side roads to get around the gridlock. You reach the same destination, you just took a slightly different way. Rush Hour Rewards is like that: Nest reroutes your home’s energy usage during times of grid congestion, but you still reach your destination — which in this case is your comfort level.  

When you enroll in the program, your thermostat will use less energy during times of high demand, but you’ll stay comfortable. And you get rewarded by your utility company because they don’t have to fire up additional generators. That reward could come in the form of bill credits or a sent check. You may even be able to get an instant discount on a Nest Thermostat from your utility provider. Just search for your utility and “Nest Thermostat” to find discounts.

How many customers using Rush Hour Rewards does it take to offset a power plant?

It definitely depends on the scenario but here’s one example: There are lots of peaker plants — the kind of power plant a utility would bring online during an energy rush hour — that are 50 megawatts in size, which is equivalent to only 50,000 thermostats participating in an event. Most major sports arenas hold more people than that!

How does the Nest Thermostat know when an energy rush hour is coming up?

Your energy company, or sometimes another entity that manages your electric grid, monitors weather conditions and forecasts electricity demand. When they predict demand will be high, they call a rush hour. Rush hours can also happen during grid emergencies, like when power plants suddenly go offline due to mechanical failure or extreme weather.

Another fun fact is that virtual power plants help balance renewables like solar and wind on the grid. 

What’s a virtual power plant?

A virtual power plant is what’s created when a bunch of different sources — like home batteries and smart thermostats — come together to help the grid like a power plant would. Because energy output from these sources varies based on things like cloud cover and wind speed, “mini” energy rush hours occur more frequently when there isn’t quite enough energy supply to meet demand. People who participate in Rush Hour Rewards can help balance the grid demand with energy supply. 

How does the Nest thermostat know what temperature is enough to keep me warm or cool but also enough to make a difference during an energy rush hour? 

Your Nest thermostat is very smart! It learns from your use what temperatures keep you comfortable and will make slight adjustments to those settings during or even before rush hours. For example, Nest may pre-cool your house a little bit before a rush hour event starts so that it runs less A/C during the rush hour. Same goes for pre-heating.

Right now, only thermostats participate in rush hours, but in the future your electric vehicle or even your whole home may be able to join in.

A closer look at the new Nest Hub’s design details

For the Nest Industrial Design team, details matter. Working on the new Nest Hub was no exception. "When we approached the design of the new Nest Hub, we wanted to give the product a lighter, more effortless aesthetic,” says team lead Katie Morgenroth. “We wanted it to feel evolved and refined, not reinvented.” Styling alone shouldn’t be the reason to replace a product, she says. “We want to make sure whether you have one Nest product or many, that they all compliment each other in your space.”

Because of this considered approach, you might not immediately notice some of the more subtle updates. We took some time to talk to Katie, as well as Industrial Design lead Jason Pi and Color and Material designer Vicki Chuang, about some of the new additions worth a second glance — or even a third, or a fourth, or a … you get the idea.

The new, cool color. The team introduced the new Mist color because it’s in the cool family, and compliments nature. It’s soothing, and almost looks like a neutral. Vicki led the color and material design, and says that atmospheric colors like Mist help express “soft feelings.” “Color enhances well-being. Mist is inspired by the sky, it compliments nature,” she says. “We started with a range of blues from light pastel to saturated blue, and the soft muted blue felt the most soothing and relaxing — a good fit for the home.”

Don’t forget the feet. Peek underneath the Nest Hub to see the silicone feet. “We try to have a little fun with color there,” Katie says. “We were inspired by the color you see when you cut into a fruit like a guava or a watermelon — it makes you smile.”

The inspiration for edgeless. Our idea for the edgeless display was the look of a piece of artwork or picture frame with a white border. The new Nest Hub has a lighter, more effortless feel, as Katie describes it. “All you see from the front is the glass. It makes the display almost feel like it’s floating.” 

Jason also adds that the general construction was an upgrade. "We’re very proud of the matte finish and silky feel of the display enclosure, which is also more sustainable even though it has a premium feel to it.” In fact, the new Nest Hub was designed with 54% of its plastic part weight made with recycled material.

A new knit. The new Nest Hub uses the same sustainable yarn recycled from PET bottles that the Minis use, just slightly modified. We used a recycled monofilament yarn, which gives the device a structure that’s ideal for sound quality. “The fabric was reengineered to be not only sustainable but also optimized for great acoustic transmission,” Vicki says.

And look a little closer…and you’ll see the team color matched the device down to the yarn level, so there’s a subtle blending effect in the overall look of the speaker. “That effect is called ‘melange’ and it’s created when there are two colors of yarn knit together to create a variation in the tone,” Katie explains. 

A hard switch. We first introduced the privacy switch with the Home Mini and it’s been a part of every Nest device since, including the new Nest Hub. The hard switch completely disables microphones, and the new Nest Hub also has added LED lights to the front of the display that indicate when the switch is on or off. This was important to the team to keep consistent across all Nest devices, because privacy isn’t something they wanted to overcomplicate. “From the beginning we always wanted to continue the precedence we set with the physical privacy button and include it on Nest Hub,” Jason says. “There is something definitive about having it be a physical switch. I also like the color pop that's visible once it’s on mute — it’s a nice, clear indicator.” Plus, it’s one more place designers get to have a little fun.

Sleeping on the job: How we built the new Nest Hub

When Dr. Logan Schneider was in medical school, he didn’t get much sleep. “Residency training is a horribly draining experience where you get something like...four hours of sleep a night,” he says. It was during this time he realized how little we really know about sleep.

“I started prioritizing my own sleep, and also my wife’s and my kids’ — they’re sleeping champs!” he says. (In fact, his friends with newborns often turn to him when their babies won't sleep through the night.) Originally focusing on neurology in medical school, Logan soon became so fascinated by what he was learning about sleep that he decided to study it specifically.

Dr. Schneider is part of the Google Health team that coupled sensor research with sleep science to power contactless sleep sensing in the new Nest Hub, available beginning today. Sleep Sensing, powered by Soli technology, uses a tiny, low-energy radar system to sense motion at the micrometer level. Small motions ranging from breathing to movements are detected, while identifying features like faces aren’t, to give people information about their sleep duration, routines and quality. From this data, the Nest Hub can offer personalized suggestions like waking up at a consistent time, or exercising earlier in the day.

“When we started thinking about the second-generation Nest Hub, we noticed that nearly a quarter of people currently using Nest Hubs put their devices in their bedrooms,” says product manager Ashton Udall. “So we started to look into how we could bring more value to that part of the home.” When the Nest team surveyed users about what else they could do to make the device better for bedrooms, the top request, hands down, was for assistance with their sleep. Combined with trends showing people are getting less sleep and worse sleep, there was an obvious opportunity to help.

“It’s so exciting to be in this field right now because there are so many things we’re discovering about sleep,” says Dr. Raman Malhotra from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, who advised the Nest team throughout the development process. What the medical field is learning about sleep isn’t the only exciting thing, though. Dr. Malhotra also says it’s the fact that technology companies are increasingly interested in democratizing sleep research and helping more and more people understand their sleep. 

The number of combinations and permutations we tested in Forty’s unfathomable. Dr. Logan Schneider

For both doctors and patients, sleep is a “black box,” as both Dr. Malhotra and Dr. Schneider explain it; if you go to a doctor and say you’re not sleeping well, it’s not as if you can give much more information than that. You know how you feel the next day, but not necessarily why. “Traditionally, we’d bring someone into a sleep lab to measure their sleep with something called a polysomnogram which is the gold standard for certain sleep disorders — but the polysomnogram has limitations, too,” says Dr. Malhotra. “Most patients don’t want to leave their house for a night and go to an unfamiliar environment. Then, of course, we’re changing what their sleep looks like — who’s going to sleep normally with wires attached to them?” And even after all that, he says, it’s difficult to learn much from just one night.

“That’s what’s so exciting about new sleep technologies,” Dr. Malhotra explains. “We can learn about how someone’s sleeping in their normal environment over a whole bunch of nights, not just one.” Plus, he says, something like the Nest Hub is accessible to far more people than a polysomnogram.

40 Winks, the sleep lab, with three beds and a bedside table set up with various Nest Hubs.

A look inside Forty Winks, Google Health’s sleep lab. 

Before the new Nest Hub could make its way into homes, the team had to get the technology ready for the real world — so into Google Health’s “sleep lab,” Forty Winks, they went. The team used the lab space to simulate various sleep environments. “There are different types of bed mattresses and frames, different types of fans, even adjustable bedside tables,” Dr. Schneider explains. “We had to create this space that we could modularly change so we could recreate as many kinds of sleeping experiences as possible. Co-sleepers, pets, different bedroom setups — all of it.” 

“The number of combinations and permutations we tested in Forty’s unfathomable,” Dr. Schneider says. “It was incredibly complex.” For example, data was collected by the team recreating common scenarios such as reading a book or using your phone while sitting in bed, to differentiate these cases from sleep. The team also used “Chester,” a mechanical “breathing” dummy to mimic human respiration to test the Soli-based algorithms.

A dummy on a bed with a Nest Hub in the corner.

Chester, Forty Winks’s resident sleep dummy.

Given that development took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, Google Health product manager Reena Lee was initially concerned about how they would develop sleep sensing for a new hardware product while working remotely. But there was actually a silver lining in the unexpected work-from-home environment. “Googlers who were testing a beta unit at home could give real-time feedback quickly, share setup pictures, or even report issues after afternoon naps!" Reena says.

The team tested the system over hundreds of thousands of nights with thousands of people using it at home in their bedrooms. The device was also tested in a sleep clinic against polysomography, the "gold standard" Dr. Malhotra referenced, demonstrating comparable accuracy to published results for other clinical- and consumer-grade devices.

While the larger mystery of sleep likely won’t be unearthed any time soon, the team is hopeful that advancements like Sleep Sensing on the Nest Hub will help more people understand — and more importantly, prioritize — their sleep. Because, as Dr. Malhotra simply puts it, “There really is no way to replace a good night’s sleep.”