In a typical tech conference, you hardly notice the venue. If the keynote room is crowded or the Wi-Fi is slow, you grumble for a few seconds and then move on. But at Google I/O 2016, the location and its foibles played a major role.
Travelling between the hotel and the conference center was quite time-consuming because the conference center was in Mountain View, California. Mountain View is a sprawling suburb, not a dense metropolis. Things aren't within easy walking distance of one another.
The conference was outdoors at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheater. Think of a large concert area with about ten additional tents for breakout sessions. One of the tents seated 1200 people, but some tents seated only a few hundred. With this outdoorsy feel, the weather was an ongoing concern. Attendees were arguing about whether the lines for breakout sessions were longer than in previous years. My guess is that, while the lines might have been somewhat longer, having to wait in the hot sun exacerbated the problem in peoples' minds.
Some attendees were cranky because, at this year's conference, Google didn't give expensive swag to all the attendees. I'm proud to say that I predicted this development. I can only imagine the conversations among the conference organizers: "We started giving away phones and tablets in 2009. Now people are coming to Google I/O for the wrong reasons. How can we wean them of this crass materialism without sparking a major protest?"
Don't get me wrong, as I love getting tech toys for free. But at this year's conference I heard people expressing entitlement about the giveaways. One attendee said, "I wouldn't have spent $900 for a conference ticket if I had known that there'd be no expensive swag." In my mind, a conference is for learning and networking. The giveaways, if there are any, are pure gravy.
Having just declared learning to be so important, I should tell you what I learned at Google I/O. What follows is not a comprehensive list of conference announcements. It's the seven topmost items in my conference wow factor list. Here goes:
Google plans to get into the intelligent home assistant business
The Google Home device, scheduled for release later this year, will compete with Amazon's Echo. The interesting thing is that the Home device understands a question's context. You can follow a question like "Who directed The Revenant?" with "Show me his awards." In the second question, the device understands that the word "his" refers to the director of The Revenant.
Google has big plans for virtual reality
Google's Daydream project includes specs for smartphones, virtual reality headsets and apps. Google Play will have a virtual reality interface, so you can download and install apps without removing your headset. Street View will support virtual, so you'll move along streets with your feet instead of your mouse.Virtual reality is a big part of the future Google plans to participate in.
Android users won't have to stop to download and install entire apps
Developers will modularize their apps so that users can download only the part of an app that's needed. For example, when the user clicks a BuzzFeed link, Android will download enough of the BuzzFeed app to play the relevant BuzzFeed video. This new feature, dubbed Android Instant Apps, will be available later this year.
Android apps will run on Chromebooks
For some strange reason, Google didn't announce this during the keynote. Instead, they saved the news for a small breakout session.
With this development, the large number of apps in the Android ecosystem will become available on devices with a laptop form factor. Of course, some apps will look better than others on larger screen with a physical keyboard. Android developers will have to design for yet another hardware profile.
Project Tango will have some killer apps
I've always liked the MeasureIt app. As you move the Tango tablet from place to place, the app calculates the distances between points. That can be very useful. But until now, it's been difficult to aim the tablet directly at your intended beginning and ending points.
The newest version of the MeasureIt app snaps to interesting places within its view. This helps you measure distances very accurately. And Tango knows about 3D space, so the MeasureIt app can calculate volumes!
To help you even more with your special planning needs, the online home goods store Wayfair has an app that shows you how a piece of furniture will look in your very own living room.
Project Soli takes input to the next level.
Once upon a time, we controlled devices by pressing physical hardware buttons. Decades later, we got touch screens. Now, with Project Soli, we issue commands by making tiny gestures in the air with our hands and fingers. The Soli receiver now fits in an unobtrusive place on a watchband, so the project is getting closer to commercial use.
Project Ara shows unlimited potential.
When I first heard about Project Ara, I thought about updating my phone's components without having to replace the whole phone. This is kid's stuff compared to the demos at Google I/O. In one demo, Blaise Bertrand (Head of Creative at Google Atap) described a small, pluggable glucose meter module for a smartphone. The module clicks onto a slot on the phone and easily clicks off again. This consolidates two separate pieces of hardware (the meter and the phone) into a single device; namely, the user's phone. The module interacts with the phone's other features, combining information about the user's activity level with the analysis of glucose measurements. Very cool stuff!
After three days at Google I/O 2016, I'm exhausted. Lots of walking, long lines, and the blazing sun have worn me down. But none of the toil or trouble matters. Bring on Google I/O 2017. I'm looking forward to next year's conference.
What was the most exciting announcment you heard at Google I/O? Let us know.
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