GOOGLE’S annual tech festival was not about one new product or one new service.
Rather, the company behind most of the world’s internet searches launched a rapid-fire list of artificial intelligence developments, software refinements, and new ways your smartphone can make you look smarter at its annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View.
We’ve rounded up 10 of the best things to watch for in the coming year, whether you’re keen on virtual reality, you want to identify new dogs in your neighbourhood, or you just want your phone to write email replies for you.
1. STAND-ALONE VR HEADSET
Google is planning to issue an alternative to the tangled crown of cords that is virtual reality. While it doesn’t have a launch date, or even a name, the tech giant says it will partner with HTC and Lenovo to create a stand-alone virtual reality headset that uses its own screen and cameras that track your position for a more immersive experience. Google virtual reality vice-president Clay Bavor even promises that the display and its refresh rate will deliver images “akin to what you’d see in the PC-tethered headsets of today,” like the pricey Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. No word on what it might cost or when it will arrive. Watch this space.
2. GOOGLE HOME IS COMING TO AUSTRALIA
The $US129 internet-connected speaker that launched in the US late last year is due in Australia this spring and it will bring localised services with it. Users can wake it by tapping its top or saying ‘OK Google’ from afar and asking it to deliver web search results, play podcasts or music, set timers, or find out about the weather. New features will offer information proactively, like flight delays or traffic warnings, will differentiate between different voices, and let you make purchases from online businesses that support it. There’s no word on when Australians might be able to place phone calls through the speaker, however, like its American users will be able to do this year.
3. GOOGLE LENS
Of all Google’s plans for “deep learning” and “neural networks,” its new camera app might end up being the star. Google Lens is a new feature that uses those technologies to identify what the camera sees, from restaurants you pass on the street to dog breeds. If you point it at a flower, chief executive Sundar Pichai said, it will be able to identify what type it is. Google Lens could also capture information from a photo and use it automatically, entering the password to a friend’s wi-fi network, for example. Google didn’t set a date for its Lens launch, though the addition is likely to show up in Google Assistant and Photos apps first.
This is augmented reality for the classroom but not like it’s been seen before. Teachers can virtually map a room, and place virtual objects like statues, cyclones, robots or dinosaurs around it, which can be discovered and studied by pointing a phone camera at it. It’s compelling to see, and students can gather around one big object, or check out different objects around the room. There is a catch, though. The phone you use has to be Project Tango-enabled, like the upcoming ASKS ZenFone AR, with a depth sensor, and two cameras.
5. VISUAL POSITIONING SERVICE
Described as a type of GPS for the great indoors, Google is using augmented reality technology to scan store shelves so it can point you to whatever you’re looking for within centimetres. American hardware chain Lowes is already trialling the technology in some stores, helping customers find those mystery wrenches, in an innovation Bavor claims could be useful for near-sighted shoppers. No word yet on whether you’ll be able to use it to find your car keys at home one day.
6. AUTOMATIC REPLIES
Email can be a beast and Google’s latest way to tame it is small but potentially handy. The company has started rolling out a feature called Smart Reply that suggests responses beneath an email message. They can range from two-word answers, like “Thank you,” to follow-up questions such as “Did you get this?” They don’t appear beneath mailing list emails to prevent dreaded “reply all” fiascos.
7. ANDROID O
It’s not super sexy but Google’s new Android operating system promises to deliver plenty of refinements to what its 2 billion users know. Improvements include a quicker start time, an indication that its scanning your apps for malware, a new way to see notifications (dots above each relevant app), and Smart Text Selection that will recognise phone numbers, addresses, and place names, and use the information accordingly, letting you place a phone call or open Maps, for example. It’s due late this year.
8. GOOGLE PHOTO BOOKS
The latest Google Photo addition is strangely tangible for an internet company: photo albums. You’ll be able to order printed photo books from within this app and, being Google, it will come with an artificially intelligent twist. You can select a lot of photos and have Google choose the best for you, eliminating duplicates or fuzzy images. Of course, it’s still best to check over the final result before you pay your $US10. No word on when this will come to Australia.
9. IPHONE ASSISTANT
Look out, Siri. Google is coming for you. The company will launch Google Assistant in Apple’s App Store to give iPhone users a chance to try out the competition. It will be free, able to give more comprehensive answers to voice-based web searches, and will also work with Google apps like Gmail, YouTube, and Maps. On the downside, you can’t launch it from the iPhone’s home button, it’s not the default voice assistant, and it will be less useful if you’re not using many Google services.
10. MORE PHONE VIRTUAL REALITY
Google’s take on virtual reality will be coming to more phones this year, including LG’s upcoming flagship phone and the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+. All three will support the Daydream View headset, and use VR games from Google’s Play Store. It might seem a counterintuitive move, given Samsung has its own Gear VR headset and Google is developing a stand-alone VR device, but the $119 headpiece does make trying virtual reality cheap.