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The biggest announcements from Google 2016

At I/O this year, Google displayed its vision for a more ubiquitous and conversational way of interacting with technology. Its Assistant is chattier, answering natural language queries with a more human voice, and it’s found its way into several new Google products: the messenger Allo and the Echo-like speaker Home. Both are areas where other companies have a lead, but Google’s strength in AI gave these services some nice twists, doing things like automatically generating surprisingly specific reactions to photos.


Google also announced improvements to Android — though N, out of beta this summer, still needs to be named — as well as a mobile VR platform that will come with the new OS. There’s a FaceTime rival Duo as well, and a way to run Android apps without downloading anything. Below are the 10 biggest announcements.

Google has a new VR platform

Daydream is Google’s VR platform of the future

Google now has a mobile virtual reality platform. It's called Daydream, and it's built on top of Android N. That means it's not going to compete with the likes of the PC-powered HTC Vive or Oculus Rift (at least not yet, anyway), but looks much more powerful than Cardboard and represents a huge step in the push to advance VR out of its early stages.

From the sound of it, Daydream is a lot like Android for VR. It's a backbone of software inside Android N (simply known as "VR Mode") that provides users with an entire ecosystem to play around in. There will be a home screen with apps (which looks a lot like the Gear VR's home screen, to be honest), and Google has apparently already created special VR versions of its own apps like YouTube, Street View, the Google Play Store, Play Movies, and Google Photos. Other companies, like The New York Times, HBO, Netflix, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts are already developing for Daydream as well.

The biggest limitation for Daydream seems to be that it will only work on new phones that have special sensors and screens. Google says that those Daydream-ready phones will be available this fall, and that we can expect to see them from Samsung, HTC, LG, Huawei, and more. The company is also releasing reference designs for headsets as a way of encouraging phonemakers to get on board with the platform.

Google made a VR headset… sort of

One of the rumors leading up to this year's I/O conference was that Google would announce its very own mid-tier VR headset — something more capable and polished than Cardboard, but more affordable and accessible than the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

This wound up being only sort of true. Google showed off a reference design for a smartphone-powered VR headset that looks a lot like a smaller, cordless Oculus Rift. (The company also showed a motion controller with a touchpad.) What's interesting here is that Google is approaching VR much like it originally approached Android, because the company also announced the Daydream initiative, a mobile VR platform that will be baked into Android N. Like with Android, Google is providing companies with a backbone of software while pointing them in a particular direction on the hardware side.

Of course, Google actually makes its phone reference designs in the form of Nexus devices, so it's anyone's guess whether we'll see a real Google VR headset as Daydream evolves, or if we'll just keep getting more blueprints.
Google has two new messaging apps

Allo is a messaging app with a resident chatbot

Google is making a new AI-powered foray into messaging with Allo. It’s a mobile-only app that you sign up for with your phone number and have the option of connecting to your Google account. It has the usual messaging features, including emoji, some custom stickers, and the ability to draw on photos. It also has the ability to control the font size of your messages.

One of Allo’s distinguishing features is the Google Assistant. There’s more on that below, but users will be able to call on the Assistant for information and automatically generated replies.

Google also stressed the privacy aspects to Allo. All messages in Allo are encrypted, but Allo also has an incognito mode, encrypting messages end-to-end. It also has private notifications and expiring messages.

Duo is Google’s FaceTime competitor

Because one messaging app is never enough, Google followed up its announcement of Allo with another app called Duo. It’s a video chatting app that, much like how Apple splits up iMessage and FaceTime, exists separately and is completely dedicated to a video-only experience.

The good thing about that is Duo will be dead simple to use. When you open the app you’re presented with a selfie-cam video preview of yourself — which is important, because when you pick who you want to call, a feature called "Knock Knock" allows the person you’re calling to see a video preview of you before they even answer.

Duo is mobile-only, though, and it’s tied to your phone number, so FaceTime has a big advantage here. But Duo — like Allo — will be available on both Android and iOS this summer.
A smart speaker for the smart home

The company also announced a new home assistant called Google Home, a small speaker with always-listening microphones that integrates into a broad range of services. The obvious comparison is Amazon’s Echo, and Home will answer questions and execute commands in a similar way, relying on Google’s Assistant technology to make sense of the queries.

The device itself is a small cylinder with a rounded top and a speaker at the base, available in a number of different shells to match your decor. Unlike Echo, it’s designed to be used with multiple devices in multiple rooms, so you can ask a single query and not have to worry about three different devices answering back.

Home is built on the Chromecast standard, which lets it push media to other Cast-compatible speakers and screens, change temperature or lighting through Nest devices, and integrate with services like Spotify. Google hasn’t opened Home’s API to developers yet, so Home can’t communicate with as many outside services as Echo, but Google says those integrations will become possible as the platform develops.

Google’s assistant is getting smarter and more chatty

Sundar Pichai began I/O by showing off a next-generation Google Assistant, which feels more like a chat app than the search-based Google Now. At the event, Pichai demonstrated the assistant’s ability to parse context by asking it what movies were playing tonight, specifying that he wanted to bring the kids, and then buying tickets, all without leaving the app and more or less in the way you’d speak to a human. It feels like a standalone version of the conversational AI that’s coming to Home and Allo. Google, Pichai said, sees the future of computing as an "ambient experience that extends beyond devices."

The Google Assistant also gives Allo an edge. In Allo, you can start a conversation with @google, asking it questions and doing things like making reservations through OpenTable. You can also call on the Assistant in a conversation, so your friends can see and respond to what it says. The Assistant also offers possible replies to things your friends say in chat, which Google is calling "suggestion chips." Google learns what responses to offer based on how you write — some of the suggested responses in the demo included emoji and surprisingly specific comments on photos.

Android keeps getting bigger

Android N is smarter, faster, better

We got our first look at Android N with a developer preview in March, which showed off split-screen multitasking, quick settings buttons, and a new set of emoji. The OS won’t be out of beta until later this summer, but today, Google released a new beta and showed off even more of the new operating system. New features include more control over notification size from different apps and a new picture-in-picture mode. N could also be a better platform for gaming thanks to a battery of optimizations and a new API called Vulkan that lets developers directly control a phone’s GPU for sharper 3D graphics. Google ultimately declined to name the new OS, kicking that question to a crowdsourced contest. (My money’s still on Nougat.)

Android Wear 2.0

Google also announced the biggest overhaul to Android Wear since it was released back in 2014. That said, Android Wear 2.0 isn’t shockingly different from the first version, but there are a few changes that will definitely change the experience. For one, users can now make data from any app show up on any watch face — similar to how complications work on the Apple Watch.

Most importantly, Android Wear 2.0 is supposed to help your smartwatch become more autonomous. Google says that watches equipped with the new version will need to rely less on smartphones and cellular connections, freeing up users to be more active without lugging their phones around. Features like automatic exercise recognition and better third-party app syncing should help this, too. And, of course, Google showed off a tiny, swipeable QWERTY keyboard, because who doesn’t want to type on their wrist?
Android Wear 2.0 at Google I/O 2016 announcement photos
Android Wear 2.0 at Google I/O 2016 announcement photos

Android reaches deeper into your car

Google also announced a number of slow-but-steady improvements for drivers. The popular traffic-tracking app Waze is now built directly into Android Auto, letting drivers see speed trap warnings and accident alerts in real time. The new Auto can also connect to cars over Wi-Fi, where previous versions required a wired USB connection. Android N also has some new back-end features that will make it easier for automakers to create their own unique flavors of N, although it's unclear how many car companies are taking Google up on the offer. The latest version of Auto will even work if your car doesn't support the system, thanks to a new side of the app designed to be used on the phone itself.

Running Android apps without downloading them

A lot of companies are trying to improve the browsing experience in mobile, chiefly by circumventing the open web. There’s Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s own AMP, but today Google announced a novel approach — loading parts of apps even if you haven’t installed them. It’s called Android Instant Apps. In the demo, when you click on a BuzzFeedlink, Google Play grabs the parts of the BuzzFeed app it needs, and plays a video. In another demo, it runs a parking meter payment app without installing it. Google says it will take developers "less than a day of work" to modularize their apps for the program and that it will be rolling out to users later this year.

What does it all mean?

Seeing these products through won’t be easy. VR, messaging, and smart assistants are three of the hottest areas of tech; today, Google took big swings at all of them. The demos were impressive, especially where the intelligence of its Assistant was on display, but the result leaves us with a lot of questions. Will a smart chatbot be enough to surmount the lead of Amazon’s Echo or Facebook’s Messenger? Can Google’s Daydream platform catch up with the Vive and the Rift? Amazon has been aggressive about partnering with other services, and Facebook — well, Facebook is where everyone’s friends already are. We’ll need a much closer look at the products before we can start to guess at the answers, but in the meantime, Sundar Pichai’s Google has showed it isn’t afraid of making big bets.


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