Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, said: “it’s clear to me, that we are moving from a mobile-first to an AI-first world.” and called AI “a seminal moment in computing” on a par with the personal computer, the web, and the smartphone going mainstream, at roughly 10-year intervals.
The event was a coming out party for the Google Hardware Division. The new Pixel phone and Google Home intelligent speaker are regarded as critical vessels for AI. Consequently, it is clear Google now regards the Hardware Division as important to Google as the Search, Android, and Ads teams.
The underlying vision is that computing will be everywhere and people will be able to interact with it more naturally than ever before.
Below is a brief overview of the main takeaways from Google’s event, as well as our take on what it means to us and our clients.
Google’s Pixel phone comes in two sizes, with a 5 or 5.5-inch display. Both have a fingerprint sensor on the back. The device is designed “inside and out” by Google, built by HTC and powered by the Snapdragon 821 processor, with 4GB of RAM and either 32GB or 128GB of storage.
The camera scored 89 on the DXOMark, the highest ever for a smartphone, however the software and services is where the device really stands out, unlimited free storage for pictures and video taken on the Pixel, and most notably the first phone with the Google Assistant built in.
Google’s Pixel phones, like the Nexus devices before them, will not sell in huge numbers. However, they do provide a clear statement of intent from Google and offer a showcase for its latest technologies. Where Google leads, its Android hardware partners follow. Android, powering 8 in 10 of today’s smartphones, is the most widespread and popular software platform on the planet, and that’s something everyone needs to pay attention to.
Google Assistant took centre stage at the event, with a stated goal of building “a personal Google for each and every user”. Pichai talked at length about how this is made possible by advances in machine learning and Google’s legacy in search. This, combined with AI, means Google is now able to recognise objects, translate languages and able to answer a multitude of real-time queries. With your permission Assistant is also able to learn about you, able to retrieve information on travels plan, or “reach into apps” to make reservations and access content.
Starting in December, Google Assistant will be extendable through “Actions on Google”. Direct Actions will integrate services with Assistant for straightforward requests (eg, music playback, device control), while Conversation Actions enable requests that require “back and forth” interaction to fulfil (eg, book a hotel room).
Google Assistant is deeply embedded into the Pixel phones, is the brains behind Google Home (see below), and is available on iOS and Android smartphones today through the chat-bot interface of the Allo app. From early next year, Google will provide an Embedded Google Assistant SDK, enabling the power of Google Assistant to be added to any connected device. The vision is Google Assistant anywhere, everywhere, whenever you need it.
In its simplest form Google Assistant provides a new interface for Search, but when powered by Google’s machine learning and AI technology the real sophistication lies in its use of context, both collective and personal, to deliver brands’ services and be worthy of the title “Assistant”.
Brands should plan to build Actions On Google to enable their services to be delivered by Google Assistant. Initially the focus will be on complementary marketing services (eg, product and service information), but in time we expect core services and new propositions to be made available.
This is part of a wider trend of unbundling and the delivery of services across third-party controlled channels, hence implying a greater emphasis on being comfortable as a “ambient” brand.
Google’s take on a Mobile Virtual Reality platform is called Daydream and is built on their mobile OS Android N. This sets it apart from the PC-tethered VR platforms such as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. Insert your Daydream Ready smartphone into a Daydream headset with its associated remote control and it will display a “VR Mode” just like Samsung’s Gear VR home screen. Google has created VR versions of its own apps like YouTube, Play Movies and Street View and other brands like HBO, NYTimes and Netflix are busy converting their apps, ready for launch later this year.
Brands who are already creating VR content must look into supporting this new platform. It won’t have much traction just yet, but the reference Daydream design will become standard for higher-end Android smartphones. Expect to see Daydream compatibility being incorporated in the next updates of major manufacturers’ devices (LG, Samsung, HTC, Huawei) allowing it to achieve scale more quickly than stand-alone competitors. We expect it to be the entry point for VR for the mass market – think of it as Google Cardboard 2.0.
Google Home is a voice-activated intelligent speaker powered by the Google Assistant. Start with “OK Google” and follow up with a command or question. Alongside real-time queries, the key experiences include acting as a control point for a range of audio services such as Spotify, YouTube Music, and Pandora, and offering voice-control for a variety of existing smart home devices, including SmartThings, Nest, Hue, and Chromecast.
Far-field microphones and natural language processing let you talk to Google Home from across the room, while the integrated speaker enables multi-room audio playback. Touch controls on the top of the device offer simple audio and command controls.
Google Home arrives in the wake of Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo, though arguably offers a more cohesive service by utilising Google’s existing ecosystem. In terms of implementation, the channel may be new, but, at least to begin with, the services being delivered will be familiar. It is an opportunity for brands to embed themselves within the home environment.
While the current audience size for this consumer category is relatively small, brands should seize on the opportunity to learn and experiment with voice driven interfaces. This means ensuring their brand, content and experiences need to be available in a consistent manner on these new channels. Google Home is emblematic of an evolution towards voice and conversational interfaces, a clear counterpoint to the touch and app interfaces that are the hallmark of the smartphone era. Also note, the halo-effect that first-mover status bestows should not be under estimated.
Google WiFi aims to replace your existing router with the lure of “seamless coverage and improved performance with intelligent software that delivers the fastest possible speed”. A companion smartphone app offers control over your network, including password sharing and device management, but the headline feature was the ability to “pause” internet access, so you can “enjoy more family time”.
Chromecast Ultra is the latest addition to Google family of streaming products. It can stream 4K Ultra HD & HDR content from a number of sources including YouTube, Netflix, Vudu, and (soon) Google Play Movies. Thanks to upgraded WiFi support it’s also 1.8x faster when starting a stream. To-date Google has sold more than 30 million Chromecast devices. All of these can now be controlled via Google Home with voice commands. Video, photos, and audio can be presented on a Chromecast compatible device and notably no phone is required. YouTube and Google Photos were initially showcased, but we expect this to expand quickly.
Google WiFi and the Chromecast family are enabling technologies that deliver an ecosystem of both hardware products and software services. Google WiFi guarantees the seamless connectivity that is necessary in a cloud-centric view of the world, while Chromecast add smart connectedness to existing display and audio devices. Today’s smartphone apps, where relevant, should already have Chromecast and Apple AirPlay capability built into them, offering users a “TV” style experience of the content on their smartphone.
Ilicco Elia is Head of Mobile, Digitas London
Rafe Blandford is Senior Mobile Strategist, Digitas London