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."

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.

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

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kq4ym 10/14/2016 | 9:57:00 AM
Re: Technical details lacking At $79 the VR viewer device should attract some attention even if the fabric design will not. I still look for the day when phones come down in price likewise and even the most budget conscious consumer will be able to afford them.
Mitch Wagner 10/11/2016 | 11:26:19 PM
Re: Technical details lacking Don't forget Amazon and Salesforce! They also have AI strategies. 
Mitch Wagner 10/11/2016 | 11:25:23 PM
Re: Technical details lacking Features seem to be the same, too. They all run apps -- mostly the same apps. They browse the web, they do messaging, they play music, they have cameras. 

Samsung was the last company to innovate with a breakthrough feature: Spontaneous combustion. But it doesn't seem to be popular in the marketplace. 
Mitch Wagner 10/11/2016 | 11:23:52 PM
Re: Technical details lacking Any color you want so long as it's beige. 
DanJones 10/4/2016 | 6:59:15 PM
Re: Technical details lacking Well it comes in different colors too!
DanJones 10/4/2016 | 6:58:16 PM
Re: Technical details lacking The basics of flagship smartphone design have pretty much plateau-ed for the time being. They're following the Moore's Law curve pretty closely, the Samsung S7 is also pretty damn similar. I suspect whoever figures out the slickest connection with VR *might* get the next wunderkind device, or it could be something else. OTherwise its all incremental improvements, nothing too exciting IMO. 
DanJones 10/4/2016 | 6:53:05 PM
Re: Technical details lacking I know they're spinning it but I haven't seen Google as hardware-shy at all recently, and of course it has to be in tandem with software design. This is gearing up to be a race between Apple, Facebook, Google & Microsoft over who can deliver the smartest AI interfaces. A smartphone is a good way to test how effective that interface is. Apple and Google then get to try and be the speech interface for the Smart Home, which is a logical follow-up step for them.
Mitch Wagner 10/4/2016 | 6:47:44 PM
Re: Technical details lacking On the other hand the VR headset matches her sweater so she's got that going for her. 
Mitch Wagner 10/4/2016 | 6:44:52 PM
Re: Technical details lacking Also, I had to examine what was being displayed on the screens on those phones to see that they were not iPhones. And even then I had to look CLOSELY at the screens. They're very, very close to iPhone design. 
Mitch Wagner 10/4/2016 | 6:40:48 PM
Re: Technical details lacking I hate to  be That Guy, but Google's decision that hardware is important follows Apple's fundamental strategy. I think Steve Jobs once said that if you care about software, you need to control the hardware.

I assume the photo in this article is supposed to be the new, more fashionable VR headset? it looks even dorkier than the Oculus Rift, which is saying a lot. 
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