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Google I/O: Virtual Everything

Tim Maytom

Google's annual I/O developer conference is a yearly glimpse into what the future of mobile holds, and this year was no exception, as Google unveiled plans for stronger, faster apps, an expanded Android Pay ecosystem, a more powerful wearable OS, virtual reality headsets, smart home devices and more.

The keynote presentation was held outside at the Shoreline Amphitheatre near Google's  Mountain View, California home, and was livestreamed to over 500,000 people in 103 countries around the world.

There were no massive surprises or changes to Google's core products, but the keynote did reveal just how far Google is reaching into new markets and industries, with most of the firm's innovation occurring in areas like virtual reality, AI, smart homes and wearables.

android multi windowAndroid Unleashes the N-Word
As expected, the release of the next version of Google's mobile operating system, Android N, formed a large chunk of the presentation, with several other key announcements spinning off the new capabilities of this core offering.

With Android N, Google has switched up its usual development cycle. Typically, I/O represents the first preview of a new OS, but this year, a version of Android N was released a few months ago, giving developers a taste of things to come. Instead, I/O marked the third Android N release, but the first the team considers to be "beta-like" – the final release date is yet to be announced, but expected to be later this summer.

Because of this change in the development cycle, some of N's features were already widely known, such as its multi-window support, updates to the graphics API and a just-in-time compiler that boosts performance, reducing download times and meaning apps take up less space.

However, there were still a few surprises Google was holding back, including a VR mode that provides apps using virtual reality with 'priority access' to the device's computing and graphics processors to improve the latency between your movements and changes on the display.

Android N will also feature a new update process for apps which largely takes place in the background and activates when you restart your device, mirroring the way updates occur on Chrome OS.

Perhaps most curiously, Google announced that it was letting the public help decide on the full name for this Android release. Android releases are named in alphabetical order, with the preview simply using the letter itself, and the full release typically named after something sweet (Marshmallow, Lollipop, KitKat, etc).

Despite recent online poll controversies like Boaty McBoatface, Google decided that it would turn over the naming process to the public for suggestions, although still reserves the right to pick the final name.

google daydream headsetVirtual Daydreams
Expanding on the VR mode for Android N, Google revealed its new VR platform, Daydream. The platform combines the VR mode with hardware certification, support for headsets and controllers, a special version of the Play Store designed to run inside virtual reality, and a promise that apps including StreetView, YouTube and Google Photos would all be coming to VR.

Google's own flagship device, the Nexus 6P, is the first to receive Daydream certification, but the presentation also revealed that manufacturers including Samsung, HTC, Huawei and LG would be either releasing Daydream-approved phones in the future, or having older devices certified.

As predicted, Google also unveiled the reference design for a new VR headset, building on its initial work with the cheap-and-simple Google Cardboard. The headset doesn't currently have a name, and in fact there are several devices currently in development, with the first units expected to arrive in autumn.

Google will be working with third party hardware developers to bring this new wave of headsets to market, with the images revealed expected to serve as a springboard for individual designs. The controller is a very simple oval design with an integrated clickable touchpad, along with an orientation sensor, but beyond that details are still scarce.

google homeSay 'Allo' to Google Home
Another reveal that was reported ahead of time was the introduction of Google Home, the company's step into the smart home assistant market to compete with Amazon's Echo. The device will be powered by Google Assistant, the firm's new virtual assistant tool that acts as an upgrade to the existing Google Now.

Google Assistant boasts an upgraded natural language system, with users able to follow up queries with multiple questions that the software can distinguish and answer in order. Google is positioning the software as a more serious competitor to Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa, as well as virtual assistants like Hound.

"We think of it as a conversational assistant," said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google during the presentation. "We want users to have an ongoing two-way dialogue. Think of the assistant as an ambient experience that extends across devices. Computing evolving beyond phones."

Google Home is one of those devices. The smart home hub is very similar to the Amazon Echo, able to perform tasks like playing music and interact with other smart home devices like Alphabet-owned Nest thermostats and fire alarms.

Unlike the Echo, Google has not yet opened up the Home platform to third-party developers, but the company did announce an impressive roster of launch partners whose services will work with Google Home, including Uber, Spotify, Ticketmaster, WhatsApp, OpenTable, Instacart and Pandora. For those worried about the Home fitting in with their furnishings, the device also features a customiseable base that can be changed to suit your room's aesthetic.

google alloGoogle Assistant is also powering Allo, a new AI-based chat app that not only includes standard messaging features like group chats, pictures, video and animated graphics, but enables users to bring Google Assistant into the conversation to provide information.

The software will also power a 'Smart Reply' feature that will suggest responses for you in the conversation, enabling you to easily reply without typing. The app will learn how you communicate in conversations to ensure suggestions are relevant, and will even be able to suggest photos from your Google Photos account.

In the future, Google will open Allo up to third-party developers, enabling users to bring in specialised assistants for conversations like arranging dinner reservations, holiday planning or booking gig tickets.

Google hasn't had much success with chat and social products over the years, with services like Google+, Wave and Buzz failing to make much of a splash, but given the power of Google Assistant and the growing popularity of chat bots, Allo may catch the public imagination.

As virtual assistants and chat bots become more common, they represent a chance for Google to extend its core search capabilities across a wide range of new interfaces and devices, in the hope it can monetise this expanded reach and new source of data through marketing applications.

android payAndroid Pay Builds On Momentum
Android Pay was already having a big day before any I/O announcements, having just arrived in the UK, which could prove to be a crucial market for the mobile payments system, thanks to the widespread adoption of contactless technology.

Google announced that the service now has 1.5m monthly active users in the US, and the company is hoping to take advantage of the momentum of the ongoing international launches to push that number even higher, with new features aimed at bringing in more users.

On the consumer side, the biggest news is that Android Pay will now work at some ATMs, with users able to simple tap their phone to make cash withdrawals. Google is initially working solely with Bank of America on this project, but if it proves popular, it is likely to expand to other banks in the US and beyond.

For developers, Google revealed it was launching a self-service API for Android Pay, enabling app developers to integrate it into any app that sold physical goods and services. Previously, Google has worked with a select group of apps, but is now opening up the platform to wider use. This includes integrating Android Pay into other payment processing services like Stripe and Braintree.

Google also announced it was working on a cross-browser Payment Request API for those shopping using their mobile browser. The Android Pay team was working closely with the Chrome team to integrate the two, and was already testing with services like Booking.com and Shopify.

AndroidWear20WatchesAndroid Wear Gets a Makeover
Google's wearable OS launched over two years ago, and today marked its first major update, as the developer version of Android Wear 2.0 was unveiled, ahead of a public release this autumn.

The design of the new version was inspired by how people are using the current range of wearables, and focused on improving the features that were most commonly used, representing a "holistic pass across the design of the whole system" rather than focusing on introducing new features.

Among the updates are a new UI that brings Android's material design to wearables, with expanded notifications that provide more information at a glance, and direct network access to cloud services, enabling standalone apps that don't require a connected phone or tablet to work.

Improvements to the Android Wear messaging tools focused on introducing support for a wider range of input methods, including keyboards, third party input method editors, Google Assistant's Smart Reply and hardwriting recognition. The team behind Android Wear has also streamlined the process of displaying and replying to messages.

Watch faces get an update too, with the Complications API meaning that watch face developers will be able to use a unified API, so that data from any application can be displayed on any watch face, rather than developers having to build one-off integrations for each app.

Finally, for fitness tracking applications, the new Fit Platform Activity Recognition API can distinguish between different forms of activity, including walking, running and cycling, and can trigger other apps based on what you're doing, instantly switching on Nike+ Fuel when it detects you've started running for example.

firebaseGoogle Builds a Firebase for Mobile Developers
Acquired back in 2014, Firebase already served as a dedicated platform and SDK for Android app developers, providing them with a wide range of cloud services. Now Google is relaunching and expanding the service with number of new features that will see it integrated deeper into the rest of its cloud toolset.

Firebase will now serve as a unified app platform for its 470,000 developers, taking many of Google's existing developer tools onboard and combining them with existing and new Firebase services like crash reporting, remote configuration tools and test lab facilities.

The platform now includes a powerful analytics service built by the team behind Google Analytics that will feed basic user information and detailed breakdowns of app interactions back to developers, enabling them to build audience segments and analyse user behaviour in more detail.

These segments will then power the platform's remote configuration tools, which will enable not just A/B testing but deeper personalisation of app interactions, and Firebase's new notification system, which is based on Google Cloud Messaging (now renamed to Firebase Cloud Messaging).

Another major announcement for developers was the release of Instant Apps, a new Android feature that we saw a glimpse of at our Mobile Marketing Retail Summit, when Mobify showed off some of the work is was doing with Google on this project.

The feature aims to bridge the gap between mobile web and apps by enabling you to user native apps almost instantaneously, without downloading or installing them, while also bringing app-like functionality to mobile webpages which can be downloaded to the homescreen.

Instant Apps will be rolled out extremely slowly, as Google developers test its functionality in specific use cases, working closely with third party developers and publishers to ensure that both users and developers get an optimal experience.

Finally, Google announced a major update to its Play developer services, aimed at improving life for developers by providing them with more tools to test their apps ahead of releases. It will be easier to run open beta releases for apps through the Google Play Store, and Google will highlight beta releases in an 'early access' section of the store.

The Play Developer Console will feature updated integration with the Firebase Test Lab, offering developers pre-launch reports that can test for and fix crashes, and developers will also be able to analyse and respond to user reviews, with new tools providing insights into key areas like stability and design through language analysis of multiple reviews.