In the past, Google's mission was to organize the world's information, making it possible to know the size of a great white shark or the capital of Belarus with a few keystrokes. These days, Google has greater ambitions. This much was clear at Google I/O, the company's annual developer conference, which kicked off this morning at their headquarters in Mountain View, California. Google's executives presented their vision for the future of Google—one where its services work everywhere, for everyone, and for everything.
Google is doing this in ways big and small. It’s trying to make the Google Assistant work more seamlessly in your life—so that, for example, you can simply say “stop” to turn off your phone alarm or ask it to do a few things without having to say “Hey Google” between every request. It's helping automate some of the inane tasks of online life, like filling out web forms, with Google Duplex. It’s also drilling down on its mission to merge the digital world with the physical one. Want to understand the scale of that great white shark? Look it up on Google—then bring the shark to life before your eyes in augmented reality.
All of this came together in a keynote speech with CEO Sundar Pichai and other Google executives. Missed the show? You can watch the whole thing here, read a play-by-play on WIRED’s liveblog, or read on for the TL;DR.
Pixel 3a and 3a Plus
For years, the price of a smartphone has steadily crept up, to the point where we now expect to spend $1,000 or more on a new one. Not anymore. Google’s latest Pixel devices, the Pixel 3a and 3a Plus, pack all of the premium features at half the price. For $400, you get some of the Pixel’s best tricks—night sight in the camera, an adaptive battery, augmented reality built into Google Maps—plus a headphone jack! You won’t find bells-and-whistles like wireless charging or a 1440p display—but for all the money you’ll save, we don’t think you’ll notice the difference. Read WIRED's review of the Pixel 3a here. Both phones go on sale May 8.
Whether you opt for a new Pixel 3a or stick with your old Android phone, you’ll soon be able to do a whole lot more, thanks to the newest version of Android. The as-of-yet unnamed Android Q comes with some cool updates, like a Smart Reply feature that works across all your messaging apps and a Live Caption tool that translates videos when the sound isn’t on. The key here, Google says, is that none of this data leaves your phone—the focus is on-device machine learning. You can more easily monitor your app permissions, and Google will prompt you to review which apps have access to data like your location. For families, new parental controls offer better oversight of kids’ screen time, and a new Focus Mode lets you neuter distracting apps like email and the news when you’re trying to be productive.
Android Q also offers a glimpse at what Google sees as the future of mobile technology: It’s built to support foldable phones, 5G connectivity, and Dark Mode. A beta version is now available on more than 21 Android devices, with the full thing rolling out later this year.
Google says Assistant can now deliver answers and respond to requests up to ten times faster. During an onstage demo, Google showed how you can fluidly switch between tasks and toggle across apps without having to say “Hey Google” between requests. Assistant can also better understand the difference between requesting an action, like a command to “send an email to Jessica,” and dictating the message itself. This zippier Assistant comes to Pixel phones later this year.
A few other on-phone features: Personal References lets Google Assistant better understand what you mean when you say “what’s the weather like at mom’s house” or “show me pictures of my son.” And Driving Mode pulls up a personalized dashboard designed for when you’re in the car. Say “Hey Google, let’s drive” and it surfaces the things you’re most likely to need while driving—your favorite podcasts, the navigation screen—with voice controls to control everything hands-free. That feature will be available this summer on Android phones with the Google Assistant.
Duplex on the Web
Remember Duplex, Google’s eerily humanlike bot that can make restaurant reservations and schedule appointments for you over the phone? Now it can help you on the web, too. Let’s say you’re traveling to San Francisco and need to rent a car. Open the car rental website and Duplex automatically fills in all of the required fields—the dates of your trip, your time of arrival, and so on—without you entering anything. You can double check that everything is right before booking. Definitely not creepy.
Last year, Google introduced a set of accessibility apps called Live Transcribe and Sound Amplifier, aimed at the 466 million people in the world who are deaf or hard of hearing. Those apps leveraged Google’s speech-to-text smarts to transcribe conversations in real time.
Now, Google has a few new tricks. An assistive chat feature called Live Relay gives people the option to “type” instead of talk on a phone call. Pichai suggested the feature could make phone calls easier for those whose speech can be difficult to understand—those who have suffered strokes, who are deaf, or who have ALS. To that end, Google is also building out a bigger data set of voices to train its technology, so that the Google Assistant and other voice interfaces can better understand those who have non-typical speech patterns.
Nest Hub Max
Google’s new smart display, the Nest Hub Max, works like a command center for your smart home. It can control your Nest Thermostat or your smart lights. It has a camera, so you can use it to watch cooking tutorials on YouTube, and a microphone, so you can shout at the Google Assistant to turn off the timer. (You can now use a hand-waving gesture for that too.) The camera and microphone also support video chat—but if having a camera-enabled device in your home freaks you out, there’s a physical toggle to turn them both off. Like Google’s other home devices, this one supports multiple users. Voice Match recognizes each person in your household by the sound of their voice, and the new Face Match tells them apart through the camera. It ships this summer for $229; the older Nest Hub (née Google Home Hub) is now $129.
A Note on Privacy
Like everyone else in Silicon Valley, Google is getting serious about your privacy. At least, that’s what it wants you to think. Today’s presentation included more than a few mentions of Google’s commitment to privacy and some features to let you better control it. You can now enable Incognito Mode in Google Maps, so that the places you search and navigate won’t be linked to your account; soon, you’ll be able to do the same in YouTube. All of your privacy and security settings have been moved to a more accessible place on your Google account, with the most relevant controls appearing first. And you can now choose to auto-delete your data after a certain number of months.