MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–On a clear blue-sky day in which one seemingly could see forever, Google offered its own clear view of the future May 18 on the first day of its 10th annual developer conference.
It was the first time Google I/O was held outside San Francisco; this time it’s being staged (literally) at Shoreline Amphitheater, a 20,000-seat outdoor concert venue located right across the street from the expansive Google campus.
For consumers, the future basically is this: Google wants to move into your house and become an ex-officio member of your family. This is not meant to be anything creepy, just very helpful—although the devices and services run by Google certainly will get to know just about everything there is to know about you and your family to be able to do their jobs.
But that’s just about the way everything in the world has gone, anyway. Phones, cars, subscription services, banks, social networks, vendors of all kinds, you name it: They’ve already loaded their databases with our personal information.
Before about 7,000 attendees on-site at Shoreline Amphitheater and millions more via Webcast, the search and Web services giant introduced several new products and enhancements to existing products and services, most of which will be released for general use later this year.
At Google I/O 2016, the company also announced a lot of news for software developers and for enterprise users (Android, Chrome, Google Cloud, etc.), which we will cover in separate stories here on eWEEK.
But first, the mainstream consumer market news. In a two-hour keynote, Google introduced:
—Google Assistant, a Siri-like app that can move from device to device (including iOS devices), following its owner like a personal butler or lady-in-waiting to answer questions or perform research.
—Google Home, a decorative new “member of the family” device that uses Assistant to perform home tasks such as controlling lights, heat and security (via Google Nest); playing music or TV; answering reference questions; fetching personal information (restaurant reservations, transportation, waiting calls, for example) and a score of other activities.
—Allo, a new messaging service that will compete head-on with Facebook’s Messenger and other messaging services to enable users to chat, share photos and videos, order products and services and perform a list of other functions from any device in real time.
—Duo Video Calling, a caller ID of sorts that enables callers to see who’s calling before deciding whether to answer the call, among other new features.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off the keynote on Shoreline’s Stage 1 with the headliner: Google Assistant, which understands and translates more than 100 languages and could become Google’s most well-known service.
“We want to be there for our users, asking them, ‘Hi, how can I help?'” Pichai said. “We think of Assistant in a very specific way: as a conversational assistant. We want users to have an ongoing, two-way dialogue with Google. We want you to get things done in your real world, and we want to do it for you in your context, and giving you control.
“We think of this as building each user their own individual Google.”
Google is combining its longtime research and productizing of items such as natural language understanding and translation, search, voice recognition, text-to-speech processing, deep analytics and dozens of others to make Assistant possible. As each command is made, Assistant remembers it and stores it away for future reference; the app gets smarter with each interaction and becomes better at predicting commands.
A major difference between Assistant and Apple’s Siri? Well, besides not having a name—users just say “OK” or “Hey Google” to activate it—Assistant is not relegated to a specific smartphone. It can be utilized on any Android (or iPhone, since it is a Web app) device, anywhere in the world.
Here are a few use cases:
Scenario 1: While in the car on the way home from work, a user can tell Assistant via phone or watch: “Let’s have curry tonight.” Assistant serves up some nearby Indian food options (eat in, take out, delivery). The user selects a vendor and a deployment option (in this case, delivery) by voice. When the user gets home and out of the car, he/she gets a notification on the watch or phone confirming the order. Payment for the order happens through Google Pay as OK’d by the user.
When the user steps through the front door, Google Assistant notifies him/her that the order is 15 minutes away.
Scenario 2: A user wants to take the family to the movies. “Is ‘Jungle Book’ any good?” someone might ask. Assistant then would bring up several reviews to read; the user then can ask which theater is closest, pay for the tickets and get directions to the theater in a few seconds by using voice only.
Scenario 3: If, say, you want to see photos of Pomeranian puppies, Assistant will find thousands of them and queue them up for you.
Google Assistant is expected to be available later this year, Pichai said.
Google I/O Introduces List of New Consumer-Aimed Services
Set another place at the dinner table for Google Home. You never need a phone to use this. Looking like a decorative vase sitting somewhere central in a residence, the device can hear commands from yards away and give answers to questions through Google Search quickly, nearly on the order of IBM Watson, according to Google. Home uses Assistant to perform all sorts of tasks or look up all kinds of information for anybody who asks.
Home interacts with home entertainment systems through Chromecast (“Hi Google, play Coldplay on Spotify”) and heating/lighting/security systems such as Nest to add voice control to all of them. Users can pipe music and entertainment throughout the house or in individual rooms using Google Cast and manage everyday tasks such as adding or deleting appointments on Google Calendar or booking a flight.
Google said that Home is unique in the accuracy of its far-field voice recognition, using a decade of innovation in natural language processing. Home is slated to become available later this year.
“Google Home could be a major force and could also dramatically decrease the sales potential of Amazon Echo,” industry analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights told eWEEK. “The biggest sales determinant could be the quality of the AI experience, and in the end, Google will likely win over Amazon.
“Google Home also enables connections to TVs and other non-intelligent speakers with a dongle, and Echo cannot. Amazon could decrease price as a response, too.”
Google bills this as a smarter messaging app that builds on the company’s strengths in machine intelligence and search to help users be more expressive and get more things done. All messages are encrypted, and messages in its special Incognito mode will be encrypted end to end.
Assistant is built directly into Allo, which is based on your phone number, so users can easily find information or get do things in real time, wherever they are. Allo enables users to bring Assistant into a 1:1 or group conversation, or it can appear in the context of an existing conversation to offer necessary help at relevant moments. A split screen enables this on Android phones.
Google Assistant in Allo also “understands” you, so you can ask for things like your agenda for the day, details of your flight and hotel or photos from your last trip. Because it understands natural language patterns, users can chat naturally, and it will understand. For example, “Is my flight delayed?” will return information about your flight status.
Allo features Smart Reply, so users can respond to messages without typing a word. Smart Reply learns over time and will show suggestions that are in your style. For example, it will learn whether you’re more of a “haha”-versus-“lol” type of person. The more you use Allo the more “you” the suggestions will become.
Smart Reply also works with photos, providing intelligent suggestions related to the content of the photo. If your friend sends you a photo of tacos, for example, you may see Smart Reply suggestions like “yummy” or “I love tacos.”
Dozens of new emojis populate this app. A cool new feature: When a user wants to express emotions, he or she can use a slider to blow up the message font to “shout,” or ratchet it down to emphasize a “quieter” response.
When messaging a photo, users can write notes across the photo with their finger or a stylus to personalize the photo message.
Allo utilizes knowledge from across Google—search, maps, photos, video, YouTube and Translate—in addition to services from Google partners.
“Google Allo is their latest attempt to create a successful messaging platform. It also appears that it’s their primary ‘bot’ platform, too,” Moorhead of Moor Insights told eWEEK.
“Their biggest play is AI, so that ‘smart’ replies are smarter and more natural all the way from text to photos to setting up dinner reservations. The demo reminded me a lot of Microsoft’s bot platform. Allo is Google’s recent messaging attempt, the latest being Hangouts, that has had minimal success. Google is billions of users behind WeChat, WhatsApp and Messenger, and has a lot of work to get consumers to use it.”
Allo is slated to become available on Android and iOS in summer 2016.
Duo Video Calling App
Duo is a simple, fast one-to-one video calling app for everyone—whether Android or iOS, a fast or slow connection, wherever users are. Like Allo, Duo is based on phone numbers, allowing users to reach anyone in their phone books. Its interface fades away when users are on a call.
A unique feature on Duo is Knock Knock, which allows a user to see a live video preview of the caller before he/she picks up. Thus, the person being called can see the caller and decide whether to answer the call or not. Once the call is answered, Duo transitions the user right into the call.
Duo calls are in HD video (up to 720p) and audio. Google said it has optimized Duo to work well, even on spotty networks.
Duo is expected to become available on Android and iOS in fall 2016.