Google's New Dream: Pixel, VR & an AI Assistant With Smarts

Can Google take on Apple and Samsung with a smartphone that has an AI assistant at its heart and easy VR integration?

Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

October 4, 2016

4 Min Read
Google's New Dream: Pixel, VR & an AI Assistant With Smarts

Google has introduced its new own-brand Pixel smartphone and reaffirmed its commitment to hardware, although that actually means developing hardware optimized for the artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) developments that the search giant sees as crucial to its future.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)'s new hardware chief Rick Osterloh -- lately of Motorola Mobility LLC -- introduced the new Pixel models at a live-streamed event in San Francisco Tuesday. "Why should we build hardware?" asked Osterloh. "Hardware is well... Hard."

"This is the right time to be focused on hardware and software," he answered himself. "We believe the next big intersection is going to take place at the intersection of hardware and software."

Figure 1: Howdy Pixel! Source: Google Source: Google

What this means for Pixel is taking the work that Google has done on AI and machine learning and integrating it with a flagship smartphone. To this end, the Pixel is the first phone "with the Google Assistant at its core," according to Osterloh. (See Google Doubles Down on Machine Learning, AI and Google Minds Machine Learning.)

"We're in it for the long run," Osterloh stressed. "The Assistant will continue to get better over time," he added at the end of the presentation.

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Given what was shown on the live-stream, the Assistant could be seen as a smarter and more application- and context-aware version of Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s Siri. It learns things like which streaming app you prefer to use to listen to music and pulls that one up when you ask for a tune. The Google Knowledge Graph also allows the assistant to do things like pull up Katy Perry's "Rise" if you just ask for her latest single.

It is likely, however, that Google's work with its Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT), which is getting more accurate all the time, and acquisitions, like the human-interface startup API.AI, will all play into this twinned hardware and software strategy in the future. (See Google Buys API.AI to Build More Human-Friendly Interfaces.)

As for the Pixel hardware itself, there are two models, one with a 5-inch screen and an XL version with a 5.5-inch screen. Google says its 12.3 megapixel camera is the best smartphone camera ever. [Ed note: Give it a few months!] The Pixel can get up to seven hours of power on a 15-minute charge, Google claims.

Nonetheless, the phones appear, at first glance, to be broadly comparable with the latest models from the likes of Apple and Samsung Corp. The selling points are the tight interaction with the onboard Assistant and easy integration with the forthcoming $79 Daydream View virtual reality viewer.

Figure 2: Stylin' VR Source: Google Source: Google

"We have a bit of a different take on the VR headset," Clay Bavor, Google's VR chief said. He added that Google has worked with fashion and clothing designers to deliver a lightweight fabric VR viewer to be used with the Pixel phones (although Google says that other smartphone makers will support its VR software in time).

Indeed, the Daydream does look a bit different than rival offerings from Samsung or Facebook . More like 1940s nuclear bomb test goggles than the bulky plastic head-up displays of VR set-ups at tradeshows. (See The Impact of Virtual Reality.)

Hulu LLC , Home Box Office Inc. (HBO) and Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) will have movies to screen on the viewer while Google Earth will provide virtual tours using the Pixel phone and the viewer. YouTube Inc. will also get immersive with 360-degree videos for the VR headset.

The Pixel phones are available for pre-order now and will start at $649. Google is selling them via Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) in the US, or unlocked through its online store, and will work with multiple operators worldwide. The Daydream View is available for pre-order at Google for $79.

By the way -- to be entirely accurate -- the phones are actually built by High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498) and designed by Google. This is much the same agreement that Apple and many, many others have with contract manufacturers like Foxconn Electronics Inc.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Dan Jones

Mobile Editor

Dan is to hats what Will.I.Am is to ridiculous eyewear. Fedora, trilby, tam-o-shanter -- all have graced the Jones pate during his career as the go-to purveyor of mobile essentials.

But hey, Dan is so much more than 4G maps and state-of-the-art headgear. Before joining the Light Reading team in 2002 he was an award-winning cult hit on Broadway (with four 'Toni' awards, two 'Emma' gongs and a 'Brian' to his name) with his one-man show, "Dan Sings the Show Tunes."

His perfectly crafted blogs, falling under the "Jonestown" banner, have been compared to the works of Chekhov. But only by Dan.

He lives in Brooklyn with cats.

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