“Credit to the team at Amazon for creating a lot of excitement in this space”

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, speaking about voice recognition at I/O

 

Praising a competitor’s product before releasing your own version that tacks along similar lines is one of the oldest tricks in the sales book – although at least Google freely admits when it when it is attempting to piggyback on the success of its rivals. The latest Google I/O Conference – the search company’s annual developer extravaganza – brought several of the company’s latest ideas to the fore which, although perhaps shy in terms of originality, demonstrated a confidence from the tech giant that whatever others can do, Google can do better.

 

Google looks to break into the home

 

The most brazen attempt at mimicry came in the form of Google Home, a smart speaker that is always listening with far-field microphones and can be activated in a second using a wake phrase – just like the Amazon Echo. Like its popular rival, the device must be plugged in at all times and acts as a stand-alone speaker and smart home hub, as well as offering a control interface for various IoT-connected devices around a property.

Yet there is enough innovation to suggest that Google Home is more than a mere imitation. Superficially, it has been conceived with modular design in mind, allowing users to switch its colourful base for an alternative that fits in better with the room’s design.

 

Andrew Lucas Google Home 02

 

Under the surface, however, real points of divergence from the Echo model can be found. Most notably, it is programmed to work with Chromecast, Google’s simple-yet-effective units for enabling video or audio streaming to a television or speakers directly from the owner’s phone or computer. By enabling these to link up, Google Home will be able to control video and audio around the house and even multi-room audio set-ups – something that in the Amazon range can only be achieved with the Dot.

Importantly, Google Home has been designed to work whether used individually or as a network of units located across a property offering full home coverage. However, those hoping that the Google Home will power everything in their smart home out of the box might have to hold fire for a while – the company has yet to launch a developer API for third-party support, instead choosing to focus on developing its in-built capabilities. While it plans to eventually integrate with ‘all major’ smart home platforms, the initial release will only work with a small number of devices, including the portfolio of Google-owned Nest.

One important differentiator for Google Home comes from the company’s inherent strength: search. Google’s search capabilities are fully embedded within the smart hub, while demonstrations at I/O showed that it can, at least in certain circumstances, understand conversational voice commands and the context behind additional requests. With the newly updated Google Assistant – which features enhanced natural language processing – integrated into Google Home, the initial indications are that a decent step towards a more natural voice interface for the connected home has been made.

 

Dreaming of a VR future

 

Google has already made its entry into the virtual reality market with Cardboard, its low-end offering designed primarily as a tool to tantalise customers with the possibilities afforded by the technology. Daydream, its latest project, represents a ramping up of its ambitions in this space with a VR platform built upon its new Android N operating system.

From the outside, Daydream devices will look and feel similar to the Samsung Gear VR, with a slot to place an Android phone in the front and a sturdier build than Cardboard. To improve on latency and playback issues, handsets that support Daydream will need to incorporate Google’s new screen and sensor technology, as well as include the company’s new VR mode, which will be a key part of the Android N interface.

 

Andrew Lucas Google Daydream 01

 

Google won’t be producing these headsets itself; rather, it will be partnering with Android phone manufacturers and other hardware makers. Samsung, LG, HTC and Asus are among those to have signed up as hardware partners, while the likes of Netflix, Hulu, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts and Imax are all on board to develop content that works with this new platform.

It’s clear that Google has no intention of competing in the premium space occupied by more powerful VR units such as the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. Yet it will certainly offer more functionality than other low-end devices: the controller might be simple, but features two-buttons and a trackpad as well as orientation sensors to track the user’s hand movements, while Google has stated it has ‘rebuilt YouTube from the ground up’ to allow it to support the improved audio delivery required by some VR applications.

Where exactly this will fit into the market is, for now, unclear but it seems that, much like with the Android mobile platform, Google is targeting a large swathe of the market and looking to establish VR dominance by unifying several brands underneath its ubiquitous banner.

 

A new suit for wearables

 

Perhaps the most impressive technological advance announced at Google I/O came in its wearable technology platform. Heralded as its ‘biggest update yet’, version 2.0 of Android Wear has been designed with an explicit goal: to remove the dependency on smartphones that smart watches have thus far suffered from.

Unlike its predecessor, Wear 2.0 allows smart watches to run apps and connect to WiFi, cloud networks and 4G independently, removing the need to constantly communicate with a smartphone. This will no doubt go a long way towards addressing ‘second screen’ syndrome, where the smart watch is treated as an extension of the phone and software is designed in this mindset.

 

Andrew Lucas Android wear 2.0

 

Furthering this aim is a completely revamped interface, created in line with Google’s Material Design guidelines. The navigation has been made more intuitive and features a carousel-style app menu that works with, rather than against, a circular watch face. It also features more flexibility in terms of how you can interact with the device, with handwriting recognition and an in-built keyboard added alongside the existing voice dictation function.

The use of complications (features beyond the basic time-keeping features of a watch) has been improved, with users quickly able to choose which widgets they would prefer to embed on the main display. The result is a much slicker interface that behaves more naturally for the user and feels far less like a smartphone interface jammed onto a watch.

In terms of genuine innovation, Google I/O has proven something of a mixed bag, yet few will complain that a company is taking the fight to Amazon and working on a more affordable solution for virtual reality. As ever, Google is doing what it does best – picking existing trends and improving on them. While there was little in the way of pricing discussed so far, we know that we can expect to see these devices appearing in our homes towards the end of the year.