AI, conversational interfaces, and VR: Google goes on the offensive

This week, a lot of attention was given during the kick-off of the annual Google I/O conference to three of this year’s key technologies: artificial intelligence, conversational interfaces and virtual reality.

Written by Jérôme Derozard and Mickael Morier (Méta-Media)

The attractive force of Google’s technologies was in full display with the opening viewed by more than 1 million users in China alone. Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, kicked it off by demonstrating that Google had not missed out on the shift to mobile and that 50% of all search engine queries were already today made from phones, including 20% through voice recognition in the United States. Already, the results of a mobile study that were unveiled extend beyond a simple list of links to include “cards” used to preview related content (photos, results, artists) without having to exit the search engine.

The head of Google went on to highlight his company’s progress with respect to artificial intelligence and concrete applications for search engines. The “Knowledge graph” makes it possible to link a search to people, places and things in the optic of posting the most relevant results. Voice recognition can “hear” users, even if they are in a noisy place. The Google Photos search engine (launched last year, 200 million users per month) uses image recognition to locate all of a user’s photos and videos representing a scene or object. Finally, Google’s translation service today supports more than 100 languages and translates 140 billion words per day. It can even translate images.

Google nevertheless needed to counteract the more conversational approaches put forward by Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft) and Alexa (Amazon). That’s exactly what it did with its new “Google Assistant” (which replaces “Google Now”). By the end of the year, users will be able to converse with their own search engine which will provide them with contextual results based on their location, past queries, recommended contents, etc. The search engine will thereby be definitely distancing itself from the “PageRank” results sorting system that initially made Google’s success (and that of SEO consultants). Beyond the technical details, integration is for the time being limited to a select number of partners.

What remains to be discovered is the “personality” of this new assistant. Will it be a Scarlett Johansson or a HAL?

Google Assistant and the competition

But Google Assistant still has not managed to dominate the competition. Starting with the field of connected homes, Google is faced with the success of Amazon and its “Echo” connected speaker, which incorporates the Alexa smart assistant. After having saluted the success of Jeff Bezos’ group, Sundar Pichai announced the launch by the end of the year of the “Google Home” product that will incorporate Google Assistant (for voice searches) as well as the Google Cast protocol.

Google’s speaker will be capable of streaming music from a mobile application or cast (audio and video) content to other devices such as a Chromecast (more than 25 million units of which have been sold since 2013). There again, Google provided little technical data (namely in terms of APIs) on this new product and few details on its link with other initiatives (Nest, OnHub, Thread, Weave, Brillo…) in the field.

Next, in the field of communication apps, where Google faces competition from Facebook (with Messenger and its M assistant) and Microsoft (Skype). Two new apps (Android and iOS) will be launched this summer, including “Duo” for videoconferencing and “Allo” for text messaging  to replace Hangout and push interactions even further thanks to machine learning.

Allo proposes several “innovations” including suggested answers according to shared photos and history as well as a native integration of Google Assistant to launch searches directly from a conversation. Even though both these applications propose certain technological advances (such as the possibility of encoding communications), they will need to impose their presence on the market. That is beyond the fact that they still do not propose an open API…

On Android, apps that load like websites

In the mobile field, to ensure Google Assistant success in a market occupied by Siri, the company can count on Android which remains by far the most common mobile operating system on the planet. Android seduces new partners namely in the field of television with Xiaomi and the launch of a 4K box in the United States using the “overlay” for official TV. Also, note the arrival of new partners like Philips or Toshiba that use Google Cast for certain devices (tuner-less TVs or screens) without using Android TV.

In parallel, Google has thought of website developers with its AMP project that enables them to create lighter websites hosted by Google that load up to four times quicker. To simplify the development of native applications, Google has unveiled a new version of Firebase, a free development SDK that can be used unlimitedly. New features have been added to transform Firebase into a true mobile ecosystem: crash reporting, notification pushes, event analytics, app indexing, etc. It’s an ecosystem that could jeopardize the future of many companies that edit competitive tools such as Fabric or Flurry.

However, the main announcement concerning mobile developers is undoubtedly Android Instant Apps. It will enable users to access an application’s content without having to install it from the Play Store for Android versions 4.1 and up. With Android Instant Apps, native applications become as easy to access as websites. Users who are pleased with their experience can then decide to install the application. That pushes deep links very far. It’s a new tool to recruit new users, reduce installation problems and propose a more enriching experience. This new functionality (which is apparently simple to install) can change a lot of things with respect to the adoption of applications and the simplification of uses.

Android’s strategy applied to VR

The last key technology presented during the keynote: virtual reality. Following the launch of the “low-cost” Cardboard VR headset in 2014 (50 million compatible applications installed) followed by ‘Jump” last year for 360° video productions, Google is now extending its VR strategy to “Daydream,” the Android virtual reality extension. Under the leadership of Clay Bavor, Google’s goal is to simplify users’ access to high-quality VR (high resolution, high refresh rates, reduced latency) on Android smartphones, followed by other platforms.

For this purpose, Google intends to use three levers:

  • Smartphones, by developing a “Daydream Ready” certification system guaranteeing users a good VR experience with adapted material (sensors, screen, processor) and user interface. Among initial partners are several Chinese manufacturers (China representing a key VR market) as well as Samsung that is close to becoming a major virtual reality player, second only to Facebook. The first compatible products should be launched by this fall.

  • Second lever, virtual reality headsets similar to the Gear VR headset: by the end of the year, Google will be proposing a reference design compatible with “Daydream Ready” smartphones as well as a controller (used in a very similar fashion to the Wiimote) enabling users to interact in a VR environment. Google will also be selling a headset.

  • Last VR development lever: apps available through Google Play for VR, an app store dedicated to “Daydream” compatible apps. To stock this store, Google has convinced several partners to develop compatible apps, including media like HBO,, Netflix, CNN, Hulu, Imax, USA Today, WSJ and the NY Times as well as game developers such as Chinese company Netease.

We will undoubtedly witness in the coming months a “VR platform war” between Facebook/Oculus and Google/Daydream, with each protagonist attempting to seduce the most partners, manufacturers and developers possible. More information was expected during Google’s upcoming VR conference Thursday evening.

All in all, there were many announcements made during this keynote but little in terms of technical information (a shame given the event is geared toward developers) and products that will not be launched before the end of the year.

This article was originally published on Méta-Média and is presented here as part of the editorial partnership between CMF Trends and Méta-Média.  © [2016] [Méta-Média]. All rights reserved.

Méta-Media is France Télévisions' collective blog that focus on the evolution of traditional media, new media and journalism.
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