Google/IO Conference Recap

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Google I/O is the company’s largest show of the year. It is the big time. New operating systems. New hardware. Big, new ideas. This is the event many of us have been waiting for since, well, the last Google I/O.

Or at least, that’s the idea. This year’s keynote speech, given by Google Senior VP and head of Android, Sundar Pichai, with the help of brilliant minds from across the company, was interesting but not fascinating. There was nothing really mind-blowing, and it ended rather anti-climatically. There were no big reveals or giveaways. In fact, there was almost no hardware on display at all. But that doesn’t mean it was a wash. Google is working on some compelling projects. Here’s what you need to know:

Android M Looks Pretty Cool

Last year’s Android L announcement was a big deal. It totally changed the way the Android platform looked and worked. This year’s announcement of the follow-up, Android M, is rather insignificant by comparison. This is evolution, not revolution. But there is nothing wrong with evolution. Google is going through the changes that have been made and tweaking them, speeding things up, and making them a little more functional here and there, but there is no new radical redesign. It is like Lollipop, but better. Hundreds of bugs were fixed and hundreds of features added. Most of them were small, but the big ones will all go towards making Android M (probably “Marshmallow”) a great system.

Perhaps the single biggest change deals with “permissions.” Anyone who has ever installed an Android app knows what it feels like to look at a giant list of apps and wonder why a dictionary, for example, needed access to their location and device ID. Back in Android 4.3, there was a hidden app called “App Ops” that allowed users to control app permissions and not allow them to have unwanted access to a user’s phone. It was removed, but now it’s baked into the system. Permissions have been culled to just eight: Location, Camera, Microphone, Contacts, Phone, SMS, Calendar, and Sensor. That’s it. You don’t have to give the app carte blanche access to your phone. On the stage they used Whatsapp as an example. When you use the messaging app, it only asks for specific permissions when it needs them. You don’t have to give Whatsapp permission to use your microphone until you tell Whatsapp you want to use its voice features.  Afterwards, it will continue to have that permission, but it can be revoked in the settings.

Android M also working to improve your experiences within apps. Custom Chrome Tabs will allow applications to use a customized Chrome browser rather than separate, inferior Web View mode. And apps can now control where certain file paths go. A Twitter link, for example, will always open up your Twitter app rather than asking if you’d like to see that Twitter page in your browser. It’s a small but significant change to the way the system’s underlying Intents work, but it promises to be a more seamless experience.

Seamlessness is really the name of the game. Updates to Google Now include the ability to understand contextual pronouns. Listening to Skrillex on Spotify? Ask Google what “his name” is, and it’ll bring up a Google Now card about Skrillex. Having a conversation about your favorite restaurant? A long press of the home button activates “Now On Tap,” and Google will scan your screen. It’ll catch that restaurant and bring up a card allowing you to check it out on Yelp or even make a reservation on OpenTable.

Creepy? Yes, but exceedingly useful.

And with fingerprint support now a fundamental part of the system and an API out to developers, you’ll be able to use your fingerprint for a mostly secure, but definitely convenient, experience. With the unveiling of Android Pay, which officially works in over 700,000 US stores and on upwards of 70% of Android devices, Google has hit this system hard, hoping to reclaim the market share it lost with the basically irrelevant Google Wallet. The system uses your existing credit cards without ever revealing your number to the merchant, which makes it a safer and simpler experience.

USB Type-C support (including MIDI connection capabilities) and idle battery life improvements are great features, along with the laundry list of improvements that include better volume controls, more functional text selection, and direct sharing access to common contacts.

Android Wear Still Exists (And That Is All There Is To Say)

The company spent some time talking about Android Wear, but there was nothing new to report. They detailed the features of Wear 5.1, which has already hit devices like the Moto 360. Basically, it all boiled down to choice. The Apple Watch gives you some customization options, but there are far more options available to the Android Wear faithful. Given that today is the day that initial reviews of the Pebble Time watch went up, it seemed like a missed opportunity for Google to take some of the wind out of their sails.

Google Will Control Your Smarthome

More interesting was Google’s discussion of the Internet of Things. It’s the latest buzzword from technology companies, and Google has been positioning itself into that space for a while. When they purchased Nest early last year, they got the company’s Learning Thermostat .These were items built for a smarthome, but without a smarthome platform to run on. Google is changing that with Project Brillo, the “underlying OS for the Internet of Things.” It is derived from Android and features built-in support for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy, crucial to keeping all of these devices connected. The new communication protocol is a cross-platform system called “Weave,” and Android phones will auto-detect Brillo and Weave devices. Your phone is the thing that ties it all together. The idea of a separate hub to control your house seems quaint by comparison.

Google Photos Has Potential

Today, Google announced Google Photos, a cross-platform photo organization service that has some features that sound just a little too good to be true. Auto-backup isn’t all that impressive anymore, but it is a nice thing to have. Free unlimited storage of photos up to 16MP in size and 1080p videos is much cooler, but this is not even the most interesting thing about Google Photos. Instead, it’s the built in organizational tools. You don’t need to tag items anymore. Using all of the knowledge that Google’s algorithms have built up over the years, you can search by people, places, and things, and the system will return those images you were looking for. Went to a great baseball game? Search “baseball.” Was there a blizzard in Toronto that you got some great moments from? “Snowstorm in Toronto” will bring those images up. How about photos of a specific person? Tap their face and the service will find them.

The service has also broken out from Google+, meaning that it’s now social network agnostic. You can tweet from right in the app. If you want everyone to see a collection of photos, you can create a link and put that out for all to see. But what makes that unique is the fact that anybody can see those photos. You don’t need a Google account or a Google phone. You don’t need to sign up or sign in. You click that link, and you see those photos. No strings attached. (Though if you are signed in, you can pull the entire album into your collection with ease.)

Google Is Taking VR Seriously

That is actually something of an understatement. Google is not only taking VR seriously, but they’re now working on creating an entire VR pipeline that will allow people to effectively create and playback VR content. Is there a catch? You betcha, but it bodes well for the future of the medium.

It’s called Jump, and it consists of three parts: Camera Rig, Assembler, and Player. They teamed up with GoPro to create a 16-camera circular array for creating images, and that adds crucial features like frame-level sync and shared camera settings, but they will be unveiling more plans later this summer, allowing anyone to see their progress. It’s essentially the same tactic they used for Google Cardboard. They announced a refresh of that, actually, which is easier to assemble and supports larger phones. Oh, and it supports iOS now too.

The Assembler is different from the software that currently exists. Generally, 2D spherical video stitched from a bunch of cameras is turned into a VR experience in 2D. Google’s Assembler doesn’t do that. Assembler stitches together the 16 images from those GoPros, it calculates the depth in the images and outputs a 3D video file, not a 2D one. VR in 2D is always going to be a little strange. 3D is necessary to really make the immersion feel real. And this is the kind of thing that will push that possibility forward. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of thing that they’re making widely available. Google said it takes literally thousands of computers to make it work, so the system will only be available to a select few creators, but even so, the significance of a system like this, if it can be everything it purports to be, cannot be overstated.

So how about the player? How are we supposed to watch all of this new stuff? Well, Google’s got that covered. In fact, their solution is something you’ve probably already used today, very likely more than once. Google will be adding true VR support to Youtube later this summer. VR content won’t be behind various gated marketplaces anymore. It’ll be on the world’s most popular video platform. And that can only be a good thing.

How to capture VR: Google custom camera rig for shooting VR. Jump allows anyone to capture the world in VR. Google is giving away the plans for building a rig this summer that utilizes a three-pronged approach: camera rig, Assembler (software), and player. GoPro will build and sell a Jump-read 360 degree camera kit that supports shared camera settings and frame-level sync for 16 cameras simultaneously.

The Assembler stitches it all together to make stereoscopic 3D video and it figures out depth data while stitching. This fixes image problems at the edges of a camera. Assembler requires “thousands” of computers, and so only a select few will be able to use it. Jump will be supported on Youtube.

And those are the highlights. What do you think of Google’s announcements? Are you excited for the future of the company’s products? Let us know in the comments! 

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