The shape of things to come in Google’s post-smart­phone vi­sion

Irish Independent - Business Week - - TECHNOLOGY - Leonid Bershidsky

GOOGLE’S an­nual de­vel­op­ers’ con­fer­ence, known as the I/O, has now be­come what Ap­ple’s events have ceased to be: a win­dow into the near fu­ture of con­sumer tech. This year’s event re­vealed two im­por­tant bets Google is mak­ing for the post-smart­phone era.

The short ver­sion of Google’s (for the sake of con­ve­nience I will keep call­ing it that rather than Al­pha­bet, as the hold­ing com­pany is now known) vi­sion ap­pears to be as fol­lows. The phone will up­grade to a uni­ver­sal mo­bile de­vice with vir­tual re­al­ity ca­pa­bil­ity. It will have all the ba­sic com­mu­ni­ca­tion func­tions, but wear­able or home-based de­vices, un­teth­ered from phones and equipped with bet­ter voice recog­ni­tion soft­ware, will grad­u­ally take over.

It’s a com­pelling sce­nario. The smart­phone is too big for things like mes­sag­ing, ca­sual nav­i­ga­tion and fit­ness track­ing. When it makes sense to use one – say, when you feel un­com­fort­able speak­ing your mes­sages out loud, or if you’re read­ing this col­umn rather than a short email or text mes­sage – the ca­pa­bil­i­ties, such as a key­board and a web browser, will still be there.

We will, how­ever, grad­u­ally learn to use the de­vice that we now know as the phone as an im­mer­sive en­ter­tain­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tion gad­get: to watch mul­ti­di­men­sional movies, play games that per­fectly im­i­tate re­al­ity, talk to friends across dis­tances as if they’re in the room with us. VR ver­sions of apps like YouTube al­ready ex­ist, and it’s pos­si­ble that in a few years, such ver­sions will be the ones most peo­ple will use.

To that end, Google gave the An­droid op­er­at­ing sys­tem, which runs on 80 per­cent of the world’s smart­phones, a ma­jor makeover. Dave Burke, Google’s vice pres­i­dent of en­gi­neer­ing, pro­vided a very gen­eral tech­ni­cal over­view of the changes, but only one of these is truly mean­ing­ful for users: La­tency – or the time be­tween the user’s eyes moving and the im­age re­act­ing – is be­low 20 mil­lisec­onds on the lat­est An­droid ver­sion, called N (it hasn’t been named for a sweet de­light yet). That’s as good as the re­ac­tion speed on more high- end VR de­vices such as Face­book- owned Ocu­lus Rift, which will only work with a powerful com­puter.

Un­like Google’s pre­vi­ous cheap ver­sion of VR, de­liv­ered with the help of an in­ten­tion­ally roughlook­ing card­board box for a phone-hold­ing head­set, VR in An­droid N will be un­com­pro­mis­ingly im­mer­sive. I have a beta ver­sion of N on my phone, a Huawei-made Nexus 6P, which is the only model sold today that’s ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing VR to the new stan­dard. Some­time in the au­tumn, Google prom­ises more phones from eight man­u­fac­tur­ers, as well as bet­ter head­sets to put the phones in.

Ap­ple, which is still reap­ing almost all the prof­its from the global smart­phone mar­ket, ap­pears to be ready­ing a VR de­vice for mar­ket, too, and it’s likely that the iPhone will be that de­vice. The Cu­per­tino, Cal­i­for­nia, com­pany has been hir­ing peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced with VR and en­hanced re­al­ity tech­nolo­gies, sug­gest­ing an in­ter­est in Mi­crosoft’s head­way in these di­rec­tions. Mi­crosoft, though, is on the same path as Face­book’s Ocu­lus – its prod­uct, the HoloLens, is not phone-based.

Ap­ple has also ac­quired a num­ber of small AR/ VR com­pa­nies. Typ­i­cally, it hasn’t an­nounced where it’s go­ing with this, how­ever. In Fe­bru­ary, Piper Jaf­fray an­a­lyst Gene Mun­ster sug­gested that on the ba­sis of the hires and the ac­qui­si­tions, Ap­ple may be ready with some­thing in 2018.

That’s two years down the road – not a crit­i­cal gap for the com­pany, which waited about that long af­ter the first de­cent smart­watches emerged to re­lease its own and out­sell all other pro­duc­ers (even if, by Ap­ple’s own high stan­dards, the Ap­ple Watch is not a ma­jor suc­cess). Ap­ple iPhone fans may be happy to wait un­til Ap­ple catches up to Google which, LinkedIn searches sug­gest, has about twice as many peo­ple work­ing on VR.

The com­pany’s other up­com­ing of­fer­ings ap­pear com­ple­men­tary to turn­ing phones into VR gad­gets.

One is a messenger app called Allo, which will, like the Rus­sian- de­signed Tele­gram and – so far mainly in in­tent only – Face­book, pro­vide a plat­form for chat bots. These pieces of soft­ware al­low peo­ple to talk to them in nat­u­ral lan­guages to get them to per­form spe­cific func­tions.

Bots with dif­fer­ent de­grees of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence are use­ful for de­vices with small screens such as smart­watches. At I/O 2016, Google pre­sented a new ver­sion of its watch op­er­at­ing sys­tem, An­droid Wear. It makes it un­nec­es­sary for a watch to con­nect to a smart­phone to per­form most of its func­tions.

Voice com­mands are the or­der of the day for home­based de­vices, like the pop­u­lar Ama­zon Echo and soon its di­rect com­peti­tor, called Google Home.

The smart­phone in­dus­try ap­peared to face a dead end as growth slowed and it be­came dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how new phone mod­els would im­prove on ex­ist­ing ones. Google has now taken a leap for­ward, and it’s laid out a road map for users to change their habits. (Bloomberg)

Google vice pres­i­dent Mario Queiroz talks up the Google Home de­vice dur­ing the key­note ad­dress of the Google I/O con­fer­ence yes­ter­day in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia

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