Innovation

The Pixel 2, The Mini-Home And The AI Tie That Binds

Promoting product releases has become something of an art form in Silicon Valley. There is the day itself, of course, but also the lead-up to it and getting people’s interest piqued enough to actually tune in.

That’s not always so easy.

Team Cupertino has made it look easy. They are the folks who turned the release of a new phone into a full-tilt media extravaganza, regardless of whether the devices they debut live up to the steak behind that sizzle.

In 2017, Amazon and Google managed to represent opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to showing off their latest and greatest.

Amazon went small – super small. Not with the device line-up, mind you – that was very robust – but they kept their product release day a complete secret until a few hours before it actually started … and then once it did start, it wasn’t live streamed.

Their promotion for the big event was no promotion – and then they did that one better by making access to it extremely difficult. And, counterintuitively enough, it worked like a charm. After all, nothing is more interesting than a secret – and while Amazon didn’t quite keep its lineup a secret, they made the details just elusive enough that they were almost a magnet for customer curiosity.

Google, on the other hand, went big.

Billboards were posted in major cities around the U.S. with two things on them: the word “Google” and the date of 10-4.

The existence of the event wasn’t a secret, but the details behind it were, evoking mystery and suspense until…

The leaks.

Walmart, for example, accidentally posted Google’s mini home speaker system online a day early, complete with full tech specs. The post was only up for a few minutes after midnight, but it was long enough for every tech reporter in the world to see it. And while that was the most notable leak ahead of the event, Droid Life leaked photos of most of the major releases, including the headlining Pixel 2.

But, as it turned out – though the Pixel phone, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Google Home (and its various iterations) were the stars of the show – AI was the tie that bound all products together. Google’s pitch to the world yesterday wasn’t just about hardware, but about very smart hardware that will get smarter the more it’s used.

Google’s big message today: The future of technology is about meshing hardware with machine learning.

The New Phone

The reviews universally agree that unlike a Samsung Galaxy or an iPhone, the Pixel is not in the business of being flashy.

No one has accused Google of making an unattractive phone, mind you – just not one that will turn heads. As one reviewer noted, “Every time it faced a design trade-off, Google chose the more pragmatic option.”

As a result, there are no curved edges, notch screens or oceans of smooth glass. But it’s a phone that is easy to grip and harder to shatter than its more design-oriented rivals. Some reviewers found the design particularly “fun.”

As was expected, the camera underwent a major upgrade, though Google is still sticking with the single lens as opposed to Apple’s dual lens option.

Much more interesting are the changes on the software front.

Active edge technology means users can squeeze the sides of the Pixel 2 to launch Allo, Google’s messaging app.

“What we tried to do with Active Edge was not make it a gimmick, [but instead ask] how could it perform a useful function,” noted Mario Queiroz, VP of product management for Google’s consumer hardware division.

The second round of the Pixel phone will support Lens, Google’s visual search tool. Lens brings together a wide swath of Google’s machine learning services, with the ability to recognize objects in photos and connect users with more information about them.

To start, Lens will only work with a few categories – such as books, movie posters, business cards and landmarks – and is only available for Pixel 2 users. At today’s presentation, Google did note that Lens could expand “in time” to other devices. They’ve also confirmed they intend to offer more categories over time.

And, of course, no phone launch would be complete without a useless – but addictively entertaining – feature, a la Apple’s talking animojis that can imitate a user’s facial expression.

Pixel 2 phones can listen for music and display what is playing in the background on the lock screen, in a feature called Now Playing.

One minor surprise that came out of today’s announcement: As with last year’s original Pixel phone, Verizon will be the exclusive wireless carrier selling the Pixel 2 directly. The phones, however, are built to work on any network – and T-Mobile is offering users over $300 in credits to buy their phone from Verizon and then switch to T-Mobile.

The New Home

Google has both scaled up and down its home offering for the newest round of releases.

The Home Mini is Google’s $49 answer to the Echo Dot, taking Allo and packing it into a smaller, quieter offering. It isn’t designed for music, but instead to make more rooms connect to the Google Assistant and to send instructions to other Google-connected devices. For example, a user can talk to their Home Mini and activate their Chromecast-enabled speakers.

The Home Mini will be released on Oct. 19, available from major retailers in all seven current Home markets, and will be available in gray, black and red.

And those Minis are getting quite the push.

Google and Walmart’s voice shopping officially rolled out yesterday, as Google was making its announcements on stage.

To give customers a bit more of a boost to test-drive the combined product offering, Walmart said it will give customers a $25 credit for a future Walmart order if they buy a Google Home or new Google Home Mini when they link their accounts to Google Express. (Google Express is Google’s shopping service that enables consumers to shop from multiple stores, put them in a universal shopping cart and then get free shipping and fast delivery on orders over $35.)

Consumers who pick up the newest Pixel 2 phone at Walmart will get a free Mini if they get their phone through Verizon anyway.

On the “going big” end of the spectrum, Google also announced the opposite of the Mini: the Google Home Max, a bigger, louder smart home speaker that takes direct aim at Sonos, Amazon and Apple’s HomePod.

The buzz about the hardware focused on a new feature dubbed Smart Sound, which taps into Google’s machine-learning expertise to tailor the audio experience to both listener tastes and the acoustical environment.

According to Google, Smart Sound can adjust the Google Home Max’s audio output based on its physical surroundings; over time, it will learn context about a user’s home and adjust sound accordingly.

Some of today’s examples were the device’s ability to hear a dishwasher running in the background, or turning itself down first thing in the morning when a high volume is not always optimal.

The goal, according to Google, isn’t just to offer a high-end speaker that only works under ideal circumstances, but instead one that can learn how to tune itself overtime.

Google claims the voice recognition will discern which people are talking to it, thus creating custom playlists tailored to particular music tastes.

AI’s Constant Presence

Though today’s event was putatively about devices – and lots of them – the recurring story was not just about the usefulness of those devices, but also about how useful those devices would become over time, as they get to know their users better.

Voice recognition isn’t just designed to get better at recognizing human speech for what words are being used, but also for who is speaking those words.

The goal, for example, is for the Google Max to know who is speaking to it and suggest music appropriate for that user’s taste. Or to know that a child is talking to it, and then offer that child user-appropriate content (while also understanding that child’s language, as toddlers speak a unique dialect of English). And, as Google demonstrated, it learns by giving users reason to talk to it. Want to play a trivia game with your kids but don’t know any trivia? Good news: Your Home Assistant knows an entire Google’s worth of trivia.

Google does not build flashy products, as few people ever look to it for design innovations. But Google is betting that consumers want AI that works across devices and users more than they want it in the maximally designed container.

Delivering that AI experience is not easy. Chinese researchers recently rated Google’s Home assistant as only being as smart as a six-year old (which, incidentally, was still twice as smart as Siri), and that is probably somewhat less smart that even an inexperienced user would prefer.

But stay tuned.

Google is aggressively pushing in the game, and has enlisted some pretty powerful partners in retail and commerce to boost their signal. One thing is for sure: The voice-activated assistant game is going to get a lot more competitive – and interesting.

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