Putting AI at the center of modern life is at the heart of Google’s latest push, and it just advanced the cause with a new screen-equipped voice assistant-cum-smart home command center and latest Pixel smartphones.
At its Made For Google event in New York City on Tuesday, the search giant unleashed several new devices, from two new Pixel 3 phones and a laptop-tablet device to a new Google Assistant-powered display called the Google Home Hub.
Beyond the hardware specs and cool features, what may matter more is how the products fit into the tech giant’s thinking.
Google sees artificial intelligence as the way forward, and it aims to put AI and related technologies everywhere in consumers’ lives — bringing things like predictive modeling, computer vision and natural language processing to pockets, kitchen counters and bedrooms. The idea is to provide the most intelligent and observant assistant a consumer could have.
But as helpful as AI-driven voice tech can be, for certain human behaviors — like shopping — the typical smart speakers’ lack of visuals can be an extremely limiting factor. Enter the screen.
The Home Hub may look like a 7-inch tablet with a built-in cloth-covered stand, but it’s no Android device. The operating system is based on the company’s Cast software, so the Hub shares its DNA with gadgets like the Chromecast. It’s technically different from the software that powers machines from partners like JBL and Lenovo, but packs the same features: Home Hub owners can speak to command their lights and locks, as well as conjure videos, weather and traffic information, and products from Google Express, the tech giant’s shopping service.
If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is: Amazon essentially birthed the display-plus-voice strategy with its Echo Show. For Google, which made its mission apparent back at its annual developer conference in May, the move marks a race to own the home. While Apple and Microsoft both have Siri and Cortana-fueled efforts, and other entrants keep entering the market, the clear leaders are Amazon and Google.
Amazon’s first-mover status may have driven its popularity in this market, but a September report from Strategy Analytics crowned the Google Home Mini as the top-selling voice-powered smart speaker in the second quarter of 2018, beating the e-commerce company’s Echo Dot. Together, these devices represent 38 percent of the 11.7 million speakers shipped globally, according to the report.
Since then, Facebook has also dipped a toe into the space. But the main premise of its brand-new Portal is video calling, not shopping. Still, it’s impossible to overlook privacy concerns when it comes to tech companies — especially when they’re moving to put more cameras in people’s homes. Certainly, the recent scrutiny over Facebook’s handling of security and privacy practices makes its Portal announcement seem tone-deaf. But the matter goes beyond Facebook’s woes. Last weekend, a new report accused China of embedding tiny surveillance chips on server motherboards at nearly 30 companies, Amazon and Apple included. (The companies deny the report.)
Google’s not immune either. Thanks to a security hole in its Google Plus social network, outside developers may have had access to the personal information on some 500,000 users. On Monday, the company announced that it’s pulling the plug on the project.
Although it couldn’t compete with the likes of Facebook and Instagram on their social turf, it seems to be going full throttle to take on Amazon on smart speakers. And one way it will avoid the privacy critiques that are blasting Facebook’s Portal is to put a hardware switch on the Home Hub that shuts off the microphone and ditch the camera altogether. Even on partner devices, like the Lenovo Smart Display, the sensitivity around privacy is apparent with a physical door that blocks the camera and microphone switch.
The Home Hub also undercuts the competition with a more wallet-friendly price of $149.
The new Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smartphones cost quite a bit more, at $799 to $899. But they can also do a lot more.
The phones feature larger screens, bigger batteries and better cameras, with a new sensor in the back and two cameras in the front.
The updates matter, not just for consumers, but also for retailers and brands’ digital commerce efforts. With Google Lens, the company’s computer vision and augmented reality feature, users can scan anything from buildings to handbags and call up relevant information or shopping options. Simply put, the better the camera, the better the experience and results. And now people will be able to shop using better displays from devices designed to last longer.
Android phones can vary a great deal from one hardware partner to another. But products released under the Google banner, as “Made By Google,” are often considered reference models that act as the company’s best examples of what its technologies can do. In that way, they reveal the tech giant’s intentions and priorities.
The company, as the maker of the world’s predominant mobile operating system, seems to be paving the way for greater adoption of such “search what you see” scenarios.
For Coral Chung, co-founder of luxury brand Senreve, the decision to participate in Google Lens’ ad campaign was an easy choice. “Our products are visually distinctive and impactful, so Google Lens is a helpful tool that enables women to find us,” she said. “As technology evolves to enable people to search in various ways, we want to be the brand that is on the cutting edge and constantly innovating.”
Chung believes Google is putting more emphasis on shopping and finds the thought exciting.
“We love aligning our brand with cool technologies for women, it just makes sense,” she added. “We were invited by Google to partner on this huge launch and loved what they’re doing.”
Part of what they’re doing also involves Duplex, the bot whose human-sounding voice stunned audiences at its developer conference. The AI, which can call restaurants or beauty salons to book appointments or screen calls, is coming to Pixel owners by the end of this year, starting with users across four cities.
The stronger focus on retail also extends to how Google’s own products will be merchandised. Goop will offer the Google Home smart speaker products in the U.S. through permanent Goop Lab stores and Goop GIFT pop-ups this holiday season. The new Goop London pop-up will also have items on hand, so shoppers abroad can check them out in person. And Google’s version of experiential retail has broadened to include a new partnership with b8ta, a tech-focused retail firm that’s launching interactive shopping experiences across seven b8ta flagship locations across the U.S. In an almost IKEA-like fashion, the scenarios will set the products in various rooms of the home.