Why Andy Rubin and Playground are betting on hardware


There’s literally a playground at Playground Global.


James Martin/CNET

Inside what used to be an abandoned Fry’s Electronics warehouse in Palo Alto, California, Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, and three other Silicon Valley veterans are trying their hands at one of the tech industry‘s biggest challenges: building hardware.

The four co-founded Playground Global, a startup “accelerator,” in 2015. That’s techspeak for a company that helps nurture young startups by providing support like mentorship, office space, and — in the case of Playground, which works mostly with hardware startups — machinery for prototyping.

On Thursday, Playground opened its doors to press for one of the first public tours of its headquarters. The location is fitting: Fry’s has long been an iconic destination for Silicon Valley’s tinkerers and engineers.

The co-founders have impressive resumes. In 2005, Rubin, who is now Playground’s CEO, sold a small startup called Android to Google for around $50 million. Now, that operating system powers almost nine out of every 10 smartphones on the planet. Rubin also ran Google’s robotics division, until leaving in 2014.

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The office has a lab for building hardware prototypes.


James Martin/CNET

Another co-founder is Andy Leak, who came from Apple, where he created the QuickTime software for movies and music. He also co-founded WebTV. There’s also Matt Hershenson, who helped Rubin co-found his old company Danger, and Peter Barrett, who serves as Playground’s CTO and pioneered video compression software and CD-ROM games.

Playground’s office has the typical tech startup vibe: A row of old motorcycles are on display inside the building “to inspire great design,” says Leak. There are several old arcade and pinball games, including Pac Man and Star Wars.

And what would a company called Playground be without a, well, playground? A big silver slide and wooden swingset structure are located right near the entrance.

“It’s not going to be a software-only world,” says Leak, wearing a short-sleeve blue shirt and shorts. Around the office, he’s known as the “groundskeeper,” and he guides the brief — about 15-minute — tour. “[Hardware] is a place we think we can add value. We think there will be an explosion of sensors and technologies that go out into the world.”

Rubin is nowhere to be found. When I asked a rep if he was around today and could come say “hi,” I was told he was in the building but we wouldn’t be seeing him.

For Rubin and Co., with their formidable pedigrees, Playground is a test to see if lightning can strike again. Silicon Valley used to be a hardware town, but as the internet began to take over our lives, the focus moved over to bits. Social networks and apps became the rage. But in the last few years, there’s been a shift back to atoms. Google and Amazon have hits with the Google Home and Echo, smart home hubs that serve as digital assistants for your house. And now there’s internet-connected everything — refrigerators, cars, coffee makers, and, um, condom rings.

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ConnectedYard, one of Playground’s portfolio companies, used the lab to build prototypes for pHin, its smart pool care product.


James Martin/CNET

Playground, whose backers include Google and Redpoint Ventures, wants to be part of the next wave of hardware companies. Right now, Playground has more than two dozen investments, including CastAR, working on augmented reality glasses, and ConnectedYard, which has a smart pool care product.

ConnectedYard is actually the reason for the media tour. The company officially launched pHin (pronounced “fin”), a system for taking care of pools and hot tubs, starting at $300. It includes sensors for monitoring water chemistry, a subscription service for chemicals and support, and an app that tells you when your pool needs tending. It’s being sold at Ace Hardware and online.

Justin Miller, ConnectedYard’s CEO, says one of the biggest benefits to joining Playground is recruiting and attracting talent.

Then there’s the thing Rubin is working on. He’s not only the CEO of Playground, he’s also a client. One of the portfolio companies is a still-secretive consumer electronics startup called Essential. Rubin is the CEO, and in March, he teased that the company is working on a smartphone that runs on, what else, Android.

That might be why he was MIA on Thursday.

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