AI PHONE TO FOL­LOW VOICE COM­MANDS

Financial Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - MARK GURMAN

Es­sen­tial Prod­ucts Inc, the startup run by An­droid cre­ator Andy Rubin, is fo­cussing on the de­vel­op­ment of a new phone that will try to mimic the user.

ES­SEN­TIAL Prod­ucts Inc., the con­sumer elec­tron­ics startup run by An­droid cre­ator Andy Rubin, is putting most projects aside to fo­cus on de­vel­op­ment of a new kind of phone that will try to mimic the user and au­to­mat­i­cally re­spond to mes­sages on their be­half, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the plans.

The com­pany paused de­vel­op­ment of a planned home speaker, months af­ter can­cel­ing a dif­fer­ent smart­phone that had been in the works, said the peo­ple, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause the de­tails are pri­vate.

Sales of an ear­lier phone were dis­ap­point­ing, and the com­pany is aban­don­ing the ef­fort partly be­cause the prod­uct is too sim­i­lar to oth­ers on the mar­ket. Es­sen­tial had con­sid­ered sell­ing it­self this year af­ter a se­ries of set­backs. The de­sign of the new mo­bile de­vice isn’t like a stan­dard smart­phone. It would have a small screen and re­quire users to in­ter­act mainly us­ing voice com­mands, in con­cert with Es­sen­tial’s ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence soft­ware.

The idea is for the prod­uct to book ap­point­ments or re­spond to emails and text mes­sages on its own, ac­cord­ing to the sources cited above. Users would also be able to make phone calls from this de­vice. If this all sounds a bit like the sci-fi movie ‘Her,’ that’s sort of by de­sign. Rubin would like to cap­ture peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion with a prod­uct that’s truly dif­fer­ent from al­ter­na­tives.

The planned de­vice, which hasn’t been pre­vi­ously re­ported, could be Es­sen­tial’s last hope to break into a mar­ket dom­i­nated by Ap­ple Inc and Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics. How­ever, Esse Es­sen­tial spokesman de­clined to com­ment.

Rubin, in an in­ter­view last year, sug­gested a benev­o­lent in­cen­tive for em­bark­ing on a project along th­ese lines. “If I can get to the point where your phone is a vir­tual ver­sion of you, you can be off en­joy­ing your life, hav­ing that din­ner, with­out touch­ing your phone, and you can trust your phone to do things on your be­half,” he said, adding, “I think I can solve part of the ad­dic­tive be­hav­ior.” Although novel, the con­cept faces many prac­ti­cal chal­lenges. Peo­ple who have spent any time talk­ing to Siri or Alexa know the lim­its of vir­tual as­sis­tants. As a re­sult, Es­sen­tial ex­pects to mar­ket the prod­uct as a com­ple­ment to smart­phones or as a phone for those who want to spend less time teth­ered to screens.

In the first half of this year, Rubin put the com­pany up for sale and can­celed a sec­ond ver­sion of the Es­sen­tial Phone. By the time it de­cided to put the home­s­peaker project on hold, it had al­ready lost key en­gi­neers work­ing on the project amid dis­agree­ments over the prospects for launch­ing such an am­bi­tious de­vice. Rubin imag­ined it as a sin­gle hub with its own voice-com­mand tech­nol­ogy that could run queries through Siri, Alexa and Google As­sis­tant -- a feat that would likely re­quire co­op­er­a­tion from three com­peti­tors. Rubin, who laid foun­da­tion for the mod­ern smart­phone busi­ness with his work at Google, hopes to achieve a sec­ond act with the new, AI-de­pen­dent gad­get. Es­sen­tial aims to have a first pro­to­type of the phone fin­ished by the end of the year. The com­pany may show off the de­vice to in­dus­try part­ners as soon as Jan­uary at the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Ve­gas, the same venue where it talked up its orig­i­nal phone last year.

An­droid cre­ator work­ing on the con­cept, the com­pany may show off the de­vice as soon as Jan­uary at the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Ve­gas

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