BusinessThe 4 most surprising takeaways from Google's I/O conference

The 4 most surprising takeaways from Google’s I/O conference

Google opened its I/O developer conference with a grab-bag of a keynote. Over two hours Wednesday, a cast of characters from the Mountain View, California, tech giant covered everything from AI-assisted ukulele lessons to the company’s carbon-free ambitions for its data centers.

There wasn’t always much new to the event, but four I/O items stood out as surprising.

Augmenting AR searches

Google’s upcoming upgrades to its search features will include “scene exploration,” which essentially mashes up the image-recognition features of Google Lens with Google’s earlier work into augmented-reality overlays of information.

For example, you could hold your phone’s camera in front of a shelf full of gourmet chocolate to see insights about each product overlaid on the camera’s view. Or you could point the camera at a drug store’s display of moisturizers to find scent-free options.

This kind of free-form info overlay represents a much more ambitious implementation of AR than, say, the Yelp app displaying star ratings for nearby restaurants in your phone camera’s view of a street.

“This is like having a supercharged Ctrl F for the world around you,” said Google search senior vice president Prabhakar Raghavan during the keynote.

It could also supercharge Google’s lead over competing search engines that may offer better privacy but come from companies that can’t match the machine-learning prowess that powers this feature.

An assistant that yearns for your gaze

If having to say “Hey, Google” to get the attention of Google Assistant ranks among the pain points of your digital life, prepare to rejoice: An upcoming option on the Nest Hub Max smart screen will free you from having to voice those wake words.

This “Look and Talk” feature will instead enable this tabletop device to start listening once you look at it. The Nest Hub Max will decide that your gaze isn’t just a passing glance by applying machine-learning models to what it sees and hears with its camera and microphone—and it will do so unassisted by Google’s servers.

“Video from these interactions is processed entirely on device, so it isn’t shared with Google or anyone else,” said Sissie Hsiao, vice president for Google Assistant, in the keynote.

“We minimize your data footprint,” said senior vice president Jen Fitzpatrick as she outlined Google’s “Protected Computing” philosophy. “If the data doesn’t exist, it can’t be hacked.”

But while her outline of Google’s data-minimization efforts—”collecting less, and deleting more,” as she put it—could have fit in an Apple keynote, the I/O presentation was light on how Google applies techniques like differential privacy to reduce the personal details exposed by its core search and maps services.

The keynote did, however, spotlight a recent move by Google to give people a veto over search results that reveal their contact information. The ability to request Google stop showing those results through a self-service web form could blow a hole in the business model of people-finder sites.

Anyone torn between buying a Pixel 6 now or a Pixel 6a in a few weeks, for example, now must consider the advertised fall arrival of a Pixel 7 series of phones, with the Pro model featuring a triple camera system on the back. Price? Ask later.

Smartwatch shoppers considering watches running Google’s relaunched Wear OS, meanwhile, now know that Google will introduce a Pixel Watch this fall, also at an unannounced price.

And although not many people have bought into tablets running Android, Google appears to have decided that years after discontinuing the Nexus 7, it’s no longer content to leave that market to the likes of Samsung. Sometime next year, it will introduce a Pixel Tablet at an unannounced price in an unannounced size.

The keynote wrapped up with a concept clip showing how Google’s work into automated real-time translation and augmented-reality interfaces would allow people to transcend language barriers by wearing a future set of AR eyeglasses. Yes, it appears that the Google Glass dream is alive—and does it ever look great in a demo video.

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