Google I/O 2019 just wrapped up its keynote, and we now have a bunch of new hardware and software unveilings to wrap our heads around. What makes the announcements very interesting is that these are all going to be introduced in our everyday gadgets, and make for technologies that we would soon use frequently and become acquainted with in common parlance.
While Google stuck to its traditions with mostly software-based announcements, it also unveiled the much-awaited “budget” Pixel phones too, which were actually no longer a surprise given the tremendous amount of leaks and renders that had surfaced in the preceding weeks. Without further ado, here’s looking at the five biggest announcements made at Pixel’s big stage in California, earlier today.
Search and accessibility gets smarter
Search is what Google has primarily become famous for, and even after all this time, Search continues to be the epicentre of Google’s advancements. As a result, it was hardly a surprise that Google began its keynote today, talking about its latest advancements to the Search platform.
The first important addition is the introduction of podcasts into Google Search. This means that users can now directly look for podcasts through Search, and instead of being directed to web results, will get a native ‘podcasts’ tab that would include the top hits for the related search query. This would then allow users to also download the podcasts, and save them for offline listening as well.
The biggest announcement, however, has to be the Google Lens integration into Search. With this, Google has integrated the smartphone camera directly within the Search app, which would then allow users to submit image queries directly into the search bar. It also gets integration with augmented reality features, using which users can actually interact with the live results on the screen.
The AR and live camera integration is being used by Google to its own strengths of search result integrations and its massive database of localised and international results. For reference, the camera can soon be pointed at a restaurant menu, and using Search and AR, Google will highlight the items on the menu that are the most popular. Pointing it at a cookbook will show up the query as an AR search result, where the recipe on the book is presented as an AR object that can be interacted with on screen.
Google is also using its live translation feature to great effect in its light version of Search on inexpensive devices, dubbed Google Go. Here, pointing the Google Camera at a written piece of text will lead to a search result that can be translated to a number of languages (that includes Hindi), and also have the Google Assistant read the text out. This would also help those with reading or hearing disabilities to better cope with their problem.
Assistant evolves as a life companion
The key to Assistant’s development process for Google, as it demonstrated at I/O earlier today, lay in making it a smarter, more seamless process that also works at blinding speed. Its key innovation lies in a feature that is referred to as ‘continued conversations’, wherein if you once start a search string by using the “Hey Google” voice command, you can simply continue to throw instructions at it, given that you do so without a lot of delay between your two commands.
With this power, you do not need to keep repeating the “Hey Google” phrase over and over. This makes for more seamless conversations with your Assistant, which now works more like a natural language conversation than before. It also exhibits the speed of operations by showing up results and opening apps almost seamlessly. Assistant will also become more useful in cars now, taking care of automated message and email responses, as well as controlling which calls are to be allowed, and which aren’t.
The new Assistant also gets email integration, taking Google’s predictive writing on emails even further by creating a full email draft and then sending it, without even touching the screen once. Assistant can now understand the context of a voice command — for instance, telling Assistant “use subject as…” will automatically redirect that particular line into the subject field of the email. In closer integration with the entire Android OS, the Assistant will also provide ‘Live Captioning’ on any audio or video source, so that you can continue to watch videos with audio muted, and this includes even video sent by a friend or family member.
Furthermore, Assistant can now pause, snooze and disable early morning alarms by simply saying “stop”, and not be required to say “Hey Google” when the alarm is ringing. This, though, has a bit of a security implication since the newest Nest Hub and the other smart gadgets from Google would be always-listening devices, which in turn may leave them to a possible furore in the future for data mishandling, voice data collection and more.
Another compelling but privacy-questioning new feature in the Google Assistant is its ability to read into geotags, and find out relevant details. Google claims that this will help make browsing for the rich images much easier through the thousands of photographs that it comes to encounter in the Google Photos app. Finally, Google is looking at ways to make Assistant a complete life companion, by integrating it into the future-forward Google Duplex technology.
With Duplex, Google is bringing together multiple technologies such as natural language processing and contextual voice conversation abilities to make actual phone calls, or even make bookings across web pages and services. The company’s demo at the event looked quite cool, and while this would presumably take up quite a few of your privacy controls, it will certainly be helpful for those with disabilities to make easier conversations when need be. Unfortunately, Google Duplex is not quite launching for Android devices just yet, and Google will talk more about it later this year.
Nest is the new IoT ecosystem
Google just gave its IoT ecosystem a more comprehensive renaming, bundling everything under the Nest branding. In comes the Nest Hub, which simply replaces the erstwhile Google Home Hub in terms of the product.
The real key here, however, is the Nest Hub Max, which includes a 10-inch display, stereo speakers, a camera that can track you across home, recognise gestures to make specific actions when you are around, and be the central hub of connectivity for all your smart appliances. The Nest Hub Max will presumably be a very powerful device, and would be a natural fit for many, seeing that most of us are already users of Google’s products in one way or another.
The new Pixel phones
The new Pixel 3a and 3a XL are officially here, and form a mid-life offering in the latest Pixel lineup. The two phones were billed as affordable, premium devices that also offer the best of Google, and while the value proposition is better in global markets ($399 in USA in comparison to Rs 39,999 in India), they still make for compelling choices.
The key is in the Night Sight feature, which are present in both the phones. Google claims that the omission of its Visual Core here won’t be a debilitating factor since its algorithms are cunning enough, and the 12-megapixel rear sensor is believed to be the same as the Pixel 3 and 3 XL. It offers a downgraded processor with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 670 SoC, along with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage. The Pixel 3a XL offers richer resolution, and while both use OLED displays, the latter gets a 6-inch panel with no notch, compared to the 5.6-inch one in the smaller device, also sans notch.
In India, the Pixel 3a and 3a XL are priced at Rs 39,999 and Rs 44,999 respectively, and offer an interesting alternative in the premium segment, in comparison to the upcoming OnePlus 7 and 7 Pro, which offer far superior general specifications, but may find it hard to rival the clean Android experience and the camera performance of the “budget” Pixels.
Next generation Android Q
The most eye-catching announcement to Android Q is the system-wide Dark Mode, which was a long time in the making. Also introduced is a new Focus Mode, which allows users to mute any app that proves distracting to them. Alongside contributing to better concentration levels, this may prove to be a way of controlling cyber distraction and smartphone addiction, along with implementing parental controls on the phones.
Google is also intent on proving its commitment to privacy, and will hence offer a more elaborate and easily accessible privacy settings menu, which will have sub-controls for minute aspects such as Google account settings, internet tracking, app permissions and more. To keep devices safer, individually upgradable Android OS framework modules have been introduced, which in turn can be upgraded via OTA updates, and not even require the user to restart their phones. Other privacy features also include elements such as an incognito mode built right into Google Maps, to prevent active location history tracking.
Other updates to Android Q include the previously mentioned Live Caption feature, as well as the addition of Smart Reply to any messaging app on Android, which will then bring the Gmail-like predictive auto responses to messaging apps. Android Q also becomes the world’s first operating system that gets native 5G integration, and an adaptive foldable phone’s dynamic interface.
While we will find out more about Google’s latest announcements eventually, through the year, the latest set of announcements seem tailor-made to suit the AI-driven usage needs of the modern day smartphone user, and while all the new features are great, the threat of privacy issues still lurk around, and remain for Google to answer them.