Highlights from the Google I/O Conference 2016

The Google I/O conference is a yearly gathering hosted by the company for developers. Traditionally, the event is held in San Francisco, but the 2016 edition saw a change of venue to Google’s backyard in Mountain View. Held at the Shoreline Amphitheater, from May 18 – 20, it brought together thousands of people, including the press, developers and partners to see Google’s latest innovations on its platforms, products and services.

This year’s I/O conference saw Google move towards developing more conversational and ubiquitous methods by which users can interact with their technology. Here are some of the major highlights from the Google I/O conference 2016.

 

New Mobile VR Platform

One of the big announcements at this year’s conference was the introduction of Google’s new virtual reality platform for mobile devices. Known as Daydream, the platform is built for the upcoming Android N. What this means is that the platform is not explicitly designed to compete with PC based VR systems like the Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive, but it is definitely much more advanced than Cardboard. The new platform marks a big step in the development of virtual reality systems.

Initial indications show that Daydream can be considered to be Android for virtual reality. It is a part of the Android N operating system (referred to as ‘VR Mode’) which offers users an ecosystem that they can explore. The home screen looks much like that of Gear VR’s and has virtual reality versions of the company’s apps, including the Play Store, YouTube, Play Movies, Google Photos and Street View. There are other companies that are also developing apps for Daydream, including HBO, Ubisoft, The New York Times and more.

 

All-New Messaging Apps

With Allo, Google is starting to get into artificial intelligence-powered messaging systems. It is an app that is available only for mobile platforms, where users sign up with their phone numbers and are given the option to connect with their Google accounts. The app features standard messaging features that include emoji, the ability to make drawings on photos and custom stickers. Users can also control the font sizes of their messages. A distinguishing feature of Allo is the included Google Assistant. The app’s users can call on Google Assistant when they want information through automatically generated results.

Because the company clearly believes that there is a need for more than one messaging app, Google also announced the introduction of another app known as Duo. This is a video chat application which, in a similar way to Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime, is a completely different messaging experience, dedicated solely to video chat.

What is most impressive about Duo is that the app is extremely simple to use. When a user opens the application, they see a video preview of themselves. This is important because, when a Duo user wants to make a video call, they can use a feature known as ‘Knock Knock’ which allows the user on the other end to be able to view the preview before they answer.

 

Google’s Smart Home Speaker

Another key announcement that Google made at I/O 2016 was the introduction of a home assistant device known as Google Home. The gadget is a small speaker that has microphones which are always listening and also integrates with several services. It can be compared to Amazon Echo, answering questions and executing commands in much the same way. Google Home relies on the Google Assistant to process queries.

The device is designed as a small cylinder that has a speaker at its base and a rounded top. There are different shells that allow users to match it to their home décor. However, unlike Amazon’s Echo, multiple integrated devices can be placed in different rooms, allowing users to ask a query without worrying about several different devices giving answers at the same time.

 

A Smarter and Chattier Google Assistant

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, kicked off the conference by demonstrating the latest generation of the Google Assistant. This new version is designed to work like a chat application, unlike Google Now, which is more search based. During the event, he showed off the applications content-parsing capabilities by asking which movies were currently showing in theatres, telling it that he would like to bring kids along and even bought tickets in the process. All of this was done within the app, in a similar way that you would speak to a human. The app is like a version of Allo and Home’s conversational artificial intelligence technology.

Allo also gains an edge with the new version of the Google Assistant. A user can converse with @google to ask questions or perform various tasks which include using OpenTable to make reservations. It is also possible to add the Assistant to a conversation so that friends can respond to it as well. When Google Assistant is added to a chat, it can offer possible replies to questions within the conversation too.

 

The Next Release of Android Will Be Better, Faster and Smarter

In March, users were given their first glimpses of the upcoming Android release through a developer preview code dubbed “Android N”. The new version features split screens for multitasking, buttons for quick settings, and new emojis. Although the operating system does not get out of beta until late in the summer, Google showed off its latest beta version that gave an even better indication of the features that are likely to be in the final version.

Some of the new features that users can look forward to include greater control of the notification sizes produced by the different applications as well as the newly-introduced picture-in-picture feature. In addition, Android N will also be highly optimized for gaming, largely due to a range of performance features and its new API, Vulcan. Vulcan will allow developers to control a device’s GPU directly, giving crisper 3D graphics. Ultimately though, Google has not named the new operating system, opting to have a crowd-sourced contest instead.

 

Android Wear Gets an Overhaul

At the conference, the company also announced that it was overhauling its Android Wear. Although Android Wear 2.0 is not radically different from the current version, a few key features offer a different experience. One of these is that Android Wear users can display data from their apps on the watch face in a similar way to how Apple Watch implements complications.

The new version of the smart watch is more autonomous. According to Google, watches that have the new version will not be as dependent on cellular connections or smartphones. This allows users to do more without having to carry their phones with them. Automated exercise recognition along with improved syncing with third party apps and a QWERTY keyboard also make the smart watches much more functional.

 

Android Apps That Run Without Downloading

By finding ways to circumvent the open web, many companies try to bring better user experiences for mobile users. Two major examples of this are Instant Articles on Facebook and AMP on Google. However, at the conference, Google announced that it was taking a different approach by allowing users to load certain apps without installing them on their devices. This feature is known as Android Instant Apps. The demo provided showed that when a user clicks on a link on BuzzFeed, Google Play would then get whatever part of the BuzzFeed application was required and play a video. Another demo showed a parking meter app running without being installed. Google indicates that instant Apps will be rolled out later this year.

 

Conclusion

Rolling out production versions of the products that Google showcased will not be an easy task. Virtual Reality, smart assistants and messaging are some of the hottest areas in technology today, and Google is making large strides in all of them. The demos were highly impressive; especially the AI features of its Assistant, but there are some questions that remain. These are chiefly with regard to whether Google’s new products can make up the ground on its competition, given that many already have mature products in the market. Only time will tell whether the production versions can live up to the massive hype generated at Google I/O 2016.

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