Innovation

AI, VR, messaging, and wearables: Everything you need to know from Google I/O 2016

At the 2016 I/O developer conference, Google revealed its AI-powered Google Assistant, Google Home, Allo and Duo messaging apps, updates to Android N and Android Wear, and a new VR platform.

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Image: CNET

Google showed off its latest advancements in AI, virtual reality, Android, messaging, and other technologies that professionals care about on Wednesday at its 10th annual Google I/O developer event at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California.

Perhaps one of the biggest core announcements was a new, AI-powered personal assistant known simply as Google Assistant—a gender neutral departure from Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa.

"We want to be there for our users, asking them, 'Hi, how can I help?,'" said Google CEO Sundar Pichai, summing up the company's approach to AI.

The concept of Google Assistant is for users to have an on-going, two-way dialog with Google. Pichai noted that 20% of the mobile queries received by Google are voice queries, so the company has continued to invest heavily in natural language processing to have a better conversational understanding for voice queries. Although it wasn't explicitly stated during the I/O keynote, Google Assistant seems to be a rebrand and update of Google Now.

Pichai then paid lip service to Amazon on its work in home automation and said that Google is getting ready to launch something "later this year." That something was revealed as Google Home, a "voice-enabled assistant for the whole family."

During the presentation, it was stated that Google Home was "unmatched in far field voice recognition," and users will be able to continue conversations started with Google Assistant over mobile with Google Home. In terms of looks, Google Home is a conical standalone speaker unit that is available in a variety of finishes, and looks like a giant air tabletop freshener.

Google Home will build on the updates to Chromecast Audio. It also has Cast API support, allowing users to cast music to other speakers that are connected to Google Home.

The search giant said that Google Home will become more of a control center for your smart home tech. In addition to using Google Assistant to manage everyday tasks, Home also supports popular home networking and automation systems to control lights, thermostats, switches, and more. Home works with Nest systems and will have Google Search capabilities built in.

Erik Kay spoke to the communications updates at I/O. Google Allo is a new "smart" messaging app with the Google Assistant built in. It has additional expression capabilities with new stickers and Snapchat-like editing tools for images. A feature called Whisper Shout allows users to change the text size of messages to add more "emotion" to their words—so users can "shout" by texting large letters or "whisper" by texting smaller words. Allo also brings smart replies to both text and image messages.

Google Assistant can add suggestions to smart replies as well. So, if you want Italian food and you send a text to a friend suggesting it, Allo will recommend Italian restaurants nearby with cards everyone can see, and it will allow users to book a reservation through OpenTable. This is innovative because it allows users to accomplish those additional tasks without leaving the messaging app. Users can also address Google Assistant in a conversation and bring in web search results.

To speak to the growing security concerns around mobile, Allo has an incognito mode with end-to-end encryption and message expiration—a nod to the growing popularity of Snapchat.

Google also introduced Duo, a one-to-one video calling app for everyone that is the video companion to Allo. A Duo feature called Knock Knock shows a live stream of the incoming call before it is answered. Duo is built on WebRTC, which is the same technology Snapchat is built on. Allo and Duo will both be available this summer on Android and iOS.

This year marks 10 years since Google started working on Android. Google released the developer preview for Android N, the latest version of the OS, early and announced that users could submit suggestions for the new name.

Android N's JIT (just-in-time) compiler brings a 75% faster app install time and 50% smaller apps. Security updates include file-based encryption to better isolate individual users, media framework hardening through splitting out key subsystems, and automatic seamless updates—like Chrome and Chromebooks.

Andreessen Horowitz's Benedict Evans tweeted about the automatic updates, pointing out that the fragmentation issues could cancel out any potential advancements in security:

"Android N gets new automatic updates. But does that solve the issue, if the OEMs don't create the update for your phone in the first place?"

Android N features like its split screen capability were demoed along with some of the productivity features, notifications, and new emoji. The first beta release is available for newer Nexus devices and the Pixel C, and it is expected to launch live later this summer.

Virtual reality is one of the biggest updates coming to Android N. Available in the fall, Daydream is a "platform for high quality mobile virtual reality." Google is releasing a reference design for a physical headset and a controller, and apps for the experience as well.

Phones that meet the proper specs will be called "Daydream-ready," and a host of partner OEMs will be launching some this fall. Android N will have a VR Mode focused on low latency and a VR System UI—basically bringing a Samsung Gear VR-like experience across the Android ecosystem. For more on Google's VR journey with Daydream, read Erin Carson's instant analysis on TechRepublic.

SEE: Quick glossary: Virtual reality (Tech Pro Research)

Android Wear received an update at this year's I/O as well. Android Wear 2.0 brings smart replies, a new keyboard, and a host of new watchfaces and hardware partners. The developer preview is available today and the full version will be live in the fall.

Developers who use Android studio received some welcome news, as Android 2.2 was also revealed. The biggest news around that announcement was a new testing tool that will write and run a test on virtual versions of different devices automatically. It also included an analyzer to for app size, a layout inspector, expanded code analysis, Java8 support, and enhanced C++ support.

In 2014, Google acquires Firebase, a cloud services provider for software developers. At the 2016 I/O conference, new tools were announced for the platform including Firebase Analytics for apps, which includes analytics on user behavior and where they're coming from, as well as Firebase crash reporting and remote configuration.

Closing the keynote was a demo of Android Instant Apps, a feature that will allow users to run Android apps without installation. The apps can be prompted by the user or by a trigger, like NFC, letting users access the aspect of the app they need without downloading it.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Google is focusing heavily on AI, with its new AI-based Google Assistant underpinning many of the new products it announced at I/O, including Google Home and the messaging application Allo.
  2. Security advancements to Android N and secure features in its new Allo messaging app, along with productivity updates to Android Wear, show that Google hasn't forgotten about the enterprise, and is still working to grow the audience of business users in its ecosystem.
  3. Google also wants to be out front in VR, so it's building VR into Android itself and potentially beating out competitors from building a smartphone-based VR platform on top of its mobile ecosystem.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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