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Google Launching Voice Assistant, Echo Knockoff, Virtual Reality Platform

By Daniel B. Kline - May 18, 2016 at 3:30PM

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The company introduced a number of new products, apps, and features at its annual developers conference that seem like variations of things already on the market.

In his first I/O developers conference since Alphabet (GOOG -0.27%) (GOOGL -0.21%) was formed, Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivered a keynote that shared his vision for the brand going forward.

Speaking from a stage in an outdoor amphitheater seating 7,000, Pichai's talk was preceded by a rousing musical piece coupled with video in a manner that  was more fitting for Peter Gabriel or Lady Gaga than a tech company CEO, but it served as the introduction to Pichai, who walked on stage without a proper announcement.

"It is truly the moment of mobile," he said as part of his opening remarks. "We are pushing ourselves really hard so Google stays a step ahead of its users."

He noted that 20% of search queries coming in are via voice and about half come through mobile. "That's why if you come to Google today and search Beyonce, you don't just get ten blue links," he said, explaining the search engine delivers music, videos, ticket-buying opportunities, and more. "It's not just enough the given them links."

What followed was a presentation where the company was not shy in introducing products in spaces where a number of its rivals already operate. It's a potentially impressive slate of introductions, but it wasn't new ground as much as it was Google saying "Anything you can do, I can do better," to its competitors. 

Google is now a separate company operating under Alphabet. Image source: Google. 

Google Introduces Assistant, Google Home device

Let's start with Google Assistant. "What do we mean when we say Google Assistant," Pichai said. "We think of it as a conversational assistant. We want to have an ongoing two-way conversation with Google."

Pichai cited the improvement his company has made in understanding spoken commands and he called the new assistant a personal Google for everyone. 

"We're an order of magnitude above everyone else," he said, ostensibly throwing shade at rivals like Apple's (AAPL 1.62%) Siri, Amazon's (AMZN 3.15%) Alexa, and Microsoft's (MSFT 1.07%) Cortana.

"We believe we are just getting started," Pichai said after showing a video that showed Google Assistant answering many of the same types of questions asked in similar hype videos for Siri, Alexa, and Cortana. 


Google Home device. Image source. Google.

The CEO said Assistant was not linked to any specific device. He said it could work on phones, tablets, wearables, or even in cars powered by Google software. Pichai also acknowledged Amazon's Echo and said that Google was going to introduce a home-based assistant in the style of its rivals product. Called Google Home, the product offers music and voice-based help much like Echo (or Cortana through a computer or phone). 

Sold with a customizable base, Google Home, has a shorter, wider profile than Echo. Created by the team that designed Chromecast, Home also supports "casting," essentially sending audio and video to other connected devices included the company's Chromecast line. The new device can also work with Google's Nest brand of home-automation devices. 

Home, which can be addressed by saying "Hey, Google,"  will be available "later this year," according to Pichai, who did not specify when Google Assistant would be launched, though he noted that many of its functions are already available.

Google is taking VR beyond cardboard

Clay Bavor, who heads Google's virtual reality (VR) team took the stage and said that virtual reality was coming to Android. He noted the company's success with Google Cardboard, but acknowledged the limitations of something "which is just a piece of cardboard," paired with a phone.

He then introduced Daydream, a platform for creating VR experiences starting with Android smartphones. Though it won't be launched until fall, Bavor said the company has created a framework for creating VR. This includes laying out which phones are Daydream-ready as well as designs for headsets and controllers.

"These improvements are part of the core of Android N," he said. That means, he explained, that lots of phones would be compatible at launch, including models from a number of top providers.

As for headsets, Bavor said the company has created a reference design for headsets, but, he added, "people think about headsets with VR, but the controller is just as important." He then showed a simple controller with just a couple of buttons.

"It's what's inside that's important," he said. "There's an orientation sensor so it knows where it's pointing."

Bavor also noted that VR is not just about hardware, it's about the experiences. To deliver those, the company is launching a VR version of Google Play where people will be able to select apps in virtual reality. Launch partners include IMAX, which will make movies available, and a number of game providers including Electronic Arts. Google will also launch VR versions of YouTube as well as its movie and television marketplace.

Google is also doing this...

In addition to sharing the latest changes to Android with developers, Google also shared a new version of Android Wear 2.0, its operating system for wearables. While many of these new features mirror what Apple Watch already does, Google made a point of saying that Android Wear 2.0 apps do not require the use of a phone (while Apple Watch requires the presence of an iPhone for most things). Android Wear 2.0 will be released to the public in the fall.

The company also introduced "Allo," a smart-messaging app designed to learn over time and make conversation more productive. It has Google Assistant built in along with technology that allows people to communicate in a number of ways including emojis, custom graphics, and a whisper/shout feature that lets users size text to convey tone. The app also includes tools to write on photos and "smart reply," a way for people to respond to questions or even photos based on how they have acted in the past without typing. 

Allo also has an Incognito Mode where chats are end-to-end encrypted, which allows users to set when private messages disappear. In addition, when the app is closed, the chat history disappears. 

In addition to Allo, Google also introduced its video companion app, Duo, its take on Apple's Facetime or Microsoft's Skype (though neither was mentioned). Tied to your phone number, the app works on both Android and iOS and includes a feature called Knock Knock that shows a live video stream of the person calling  you before you answer.

Both apps will be released "this summer" on Android and iOS.

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