VR, smart assistants and messaging – the Google I/O 2016 lowdown

Google I/O 2016

Google’s much-anticipated annual Innovation in the Open (or I/O) developer conference ran from 18 to 20 May 2016. There was certainly a lot of talk prior to the event about possible Google-related announcements, and a lot of information was squeezed into this three-day get-together. Here is the lowdown on the most vital parts of this year’s event:

Allo, Google Assistant and Duo

Allo is Google’s new messaging app, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), to rival other similar offerings like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Telegram. It is mobile-only and you use your phone number to sign up. There is also the option of linking the app with your Google account.

The app has all of the usual messaging features you expect like emojis and stickers, plus you can also draw on photos, control the font size of your messages and send messages that expire. To further emphasise the privacy aspect, Google has ensured that there is end-to-end encryption, private notifications and an incognito mode. It has Smart Reply built in which means the app learns how you type over time and provides suggestions so you can respond without even having to type.

Google Allo and Duo

The most interesting feature within Allo is the AI-driven Google Assistant. It brings the power of the search-based Google Now into your chats. You can simply set up a chat with @google and ask it questions. For example, you can reserve a table at a restaurant, book a movie or simply get suggestions for fun nights out. Google Assistant can also reply to questions by looking at the entire context of the conversation. You can ask it a question and not have to reference previous chats in your reply for the AI to understand what you’re asking. It’s like talking to a real but very informed person.

Then there is Duo, Google’s answer to FaceTime. This is a mobile-only video calling app that uses your phone number as a sign-in, the same as Allo. The app is super light (it’s only a 5MB download), and the main aim of Google is to make it as straightforward and simple as possible. You can do everything with Duo that you can with other video calling apps. There is a front-facing camera, you can mute your microphone and also flip the camera. Both the video and audio is HD-quality, and the interface fades away when you chat for a more personal feel. It has been optimised to work on limited bandwidth and will adjust the quality according to your connection.

Allo and Duo are available on both iOS and Android, and is completely free.

Android N

Android N was announced in early March 2016 and is now planned for release around June 2016. A beta version is already available for download for Nexus devices and the Pixel C tablet. There is no sweet treat yet associated with the letter “N” but Google has called on fans to name the OS in a crowdsourced contest. (Update: after a tight contest it was decided that the “N” would stand for *drum roll* Nougat!)

Much speculation surrounds Android N’s features, here’s what we know: Google is streamlining the multitasking menu. In research it has been found that users only jump back to the last seven apps they’ve used, with Android N the oldest running apps will close automatically. A “Clear All” button has been added per user request which will be used to dismiss all active apps at once. The new split-screen mode will allow you to run more than one app on-screen at a time. Picture-in-picture mode has been added for use on Android TV so that you can watch something live in one corner whilst doing something else on the interface.

Notifications are also getting an overhaul. It will have a full-width design with smaller icons for more optimised use of space. Android N is also adding quick-reply which means you can reply directly to messages from notifications. A long-press feature in the notifications menu will allow you to decide whether to display annoying notifications silently or block them altogether. Icons for WiFi and Bluetooth will be included above notifications so that you don’t have to swipe twice to see them.

Unicode 9 emojis will be included with more skin tone variations and emojis that are more human-like. The built-in keyboard will have new themes like adding colours, setting a photo as a backdrop for messages and removing the border.

Google Daydream

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The conference saw the release of Google’s new virtual reality platform called Daydream. It is built directly on Android N and is the successor to Google’s disposable VR headset Cardboard. It incorporates both software and hardware. In fall of this year there are Daydream-ready phones as well as VR viewers and controllers will be released.

Google Daydream is in essence a mobile system that allows you to simply add the VR features as part of the Android N software update (called VR Mode). Google Cardboard worked with almost any smartphone whilst Daydream only works on phones with special components like sensors and screens. This is why Google has teamed up with eight hardware partners to create Daydream-ready phones. Some of these partners include Samsung, HTE, Huawei, Asus and Alcatel.

The Daydream home screen will allow people to access apps and content while using the VR headset. For this purpose Google has also created special VR versions of YouTube, Street View, Google Photos, Play Movies and Google Play Store. Well-known outside media companies like Netflix, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Hulu, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have been recruited to create apps specifically for Daydream.

Google seems poised and ready to become a part of all your devices and to create an entire technological ecosystem that completely interconnects. The company already has its pulse on the latest trends (VR, messaging and smart assistants) so now it’s just a waiting game to see if it can become the all-you-can-eat buffet of the tech world whilst warding off the competition.