I/O 2016: Google Innovates While It Plays Catchup

The annual Google I/O developer conference, underway this week in the search engine giant's hometown of Mountain View, Calif., kicked off on Wednesday with an announcement-filled opening keynote. The company unveiled a range of upcoming products, including its new Siri/Cortana-like Google Assistant and an Amazon Echo-like Google Home device, but no Google-branded, stand-alone virtual reality (VR) headset.

Google's vision, the company's new CEO, Sundar Pichai, told attendees, is to create a more ubiquitous, conversational and "assistive" way to interact with technology. Thanks to its work with machine learning and artificial intelligence, Google now has an "understanding" of a billion people, places and things, or "entities," around the world, he said, and that technology is poised for a "big leap forward" over the next decade.

"This is a pivotal moment in where we are with the company," Pichai told attendees. "It's not just enough to give people links. We need to help them get things done in the real world."

The new Google Assistant service is a big step in that direction, Pichai said. Unveiled at the show, the interactive search service does everything OK Google can do, but with a more message-like interface and advanced functionality. It can search the Internet and adjust a user's schedule, and it can use images and other information to provide more intuitive results. Pichai described it as "an ambient experience that will work seamlessly across devices and contexts." The service will allow users "to build their own individual Google," Pichai said.

About 20 percent of the mobile queries received by Google are voice queries, Pichai said, and the company has continued to invest heavily in natural language processing to have a better conversational understanding for voice queries. "We want users to have an ongoing two-way dialogue with Google," he said.

The service will eventually be available on phones, tablets and cars, but it'll first appear in Google's new Home device, which also made its debut at the conference. Google Home is a voice-activated speaker unit the company is pitching as a central search and communications hub for the home. It will build on the updates to Chromecast Audio, and with Cast API support, allow users to "cast" music to other connected speakers. It will also support home networking and automation systems that control things like lighting and smart thermostats. The device will work with Nest systems and will have Google Search capabilities built in, said Mario Queiroz, Google's VP of product management.

"Google Home will become more and more a control center for your whole home," Queiroz told attendees. "It's like having a voice-activated remote control to the real world whenever you need it."

Or it will be. No release date was given for the new Home device, but it's expected later this year.

Comparisons with Amazon's Alexa service and Echo device are inevitable. "They're innovating while they're playing a bit of catchup," said Forrester analyst Jeffrey S. Hammond, who attended the event. It's no wonder: Amazon has sold an estimated 3 million Echos since it was released in 2014, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

Google also announced a new messaging app, called Allo, which comes with the Assistant built in. A product of Google's new communications division, which is also home to Hangouts and Project Fi, Allo comes with such innovations as Smart Reply, which offers intelligent responses to what the other caller has typed, and an "incognito" mode with full end-to-end encryption.

And the company unveiled a new one-to-one video calling service, called Duo, as something of a companion to Allo. Duo, which is built on WebRTC, the same technology Snapchat is built on, includes an innovative feature called Knock Knock, which displays a live video preview of an incoming call.

Both Duo and Allo will be available this summer on Android and iOS, the company said.

Many hoped Google would unveil a VR headset that does more than its Cardboard smartphone holder at this year's show. Instead the announced a hardware and software VR platform for Android smartphone manufacturers called Daydream. Built on the Android N OS, Daydream is a mobile VR system designed for new phones equipped with components such as special sensors and screens.

The company also announced that the next version of Android will include a new feature in its OS called Android VR Mode, which includes a series of optimizations designed to improve app performance. In fact, said Clay Bavor, Google's VP of VR, Google is building Android N specifically with VR in mind.

"VR should be mobile, approachable and for everyone," Bavor said. "But there's a limit to how immersive an experience you can do with phones and Cardboard."

Bavor showed a video of an in-the-works handheld controller to help Daydream VR users navigate through menu choices. Daydream-ready phones, as well as VR viewers and motion controllers, will be available this fall, he said.

Google's Android Wear OS for smartwatches received an update at this year's I/O, as well. Android Wear 2.0 comes with features such as smart replies, a new keyboard, a new selection of watch faces and a growing ecosystem of hardware partners. Among the most talked about improvements: the ability of the watches to run apps without being paired with a phone. The developer preview is available today and the full version will be live in the fall, the company said.

This year's I/O event is the first since the company restructured as Alphabet -- and the first to be held outside at Shoreline Amphitheater, virtually in Google's backyard. An estimated 7,000 people attended the event, and millions more watched live streaming of the conference keynote.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].