Tech Innovation

Google I/O 2016: Daydream VR, conversational AI and smartypants wearables

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

At Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, the search colossus set out its technology stall for the year ahead. It’s a vision enabled by powerful processing power, embracing a new mobile OS in the shape of Android N, a big push into virtual reality, plus an AI-powered Google Now upgrade.

Android N might have the biggest profile, but it’s Google’s work with AI that is turning heads. At Google I/O 2016, company CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated Google Assistant, an AI-boosted version of its Google Now app that can understand the context of what you say to it.

Search queries still need to be specific. But they are becoming more conversational. Instead of typing ‘Angry Birds trailer’ into Google, for example, you can now say ‘OK, Google. Show me the Angry Birds trailer.’ No need to type in ‘age of Big Ben’, when you can simply ask: ‘how old is Big Ben?’ (157 years old, if you must know).

Google Assistant takes this approach a step further, “building each user their own individual Google.” Using advanced natural language processing, Pichai asked ‘who directed The Revenant?’ He followed up the answer (Alejandro González Iñárritu) with ‘show me his awards’. No need to specify Iñárritu’s name again — the Assistant is smart enough to compute the context of the query.

Google Home wi-fi speaker
Google Home is an Amazon Echo-style speaker with Google Assistant cleverness.

This new Google Assistant will be baked into Google Home, an Amazon Echo-style product that’s part wi-fi speaker, part voice-controlled smart house accessory. Not only will it be able to stream audio from online music services, but owners will be able to use voice commands to set alarms, manage to do lists, ask questions and control connected devices.

Google I/O 2016 also touched on Android N, the next version of the Android mobile OS, which brings with it a new API for improved graphics, beefed-up security measures and Quick Switch, dual-window functionality that should satisfy anyone wanting a ‘split-screen’ mode for apps.

Speaking of apps, Google also unveiled two new ones. A smart messaging app dubbed Allo allows greater expression through emojis and photo annotations. Borrowing some of the Google Assistant’s smarts, it can also analyse text and photos to construct predictive replies.

Duo, meanwhile is a one-to-one video calling app designed to work with Allo. Take a look at it in action in the video below.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Google I/O 2016, however, concerned Google’s plans for virtual reality. Having lowered the cost of entry with Google Cardboard, the next step appears to be Daydream, a fully-fledged, mass-appeal VR platform that combines Android N-capable smartphones, a headset reference design (including an orientation-sensing controller) and more VR apps.

You’ll soon be able to watch YouTube, use Street View, browse photos, play games, even search Google Play in VR.

Finally, expect to see a significant update to Google’s Android Wear, the software that already powers smartwatches such as the Motorola Moto 360, Sony Smartwatch 3 and the Tag Heuer Connected.

Android Wear 2.0 will allow any watch face to show date from any app, enabling you to customise a watch to suit your lifestyle. Google also demoed smart replies, handwriting recognition and a new keyboard app to make interacting with wearables far simpler. Crucially, Android Wear 2.0 will work without being paired to a smartphone.

It’s another example of just how greater computing power open up a digital tomorrow that will be more exciting, helpful, amazing and, judging by VR apps like A Chair in a Room, a little bit terrifying.

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