Source: USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — The tech community may have wanted to hear more about the ultimate availability of Google Glass, but Google’s augmented reality spectacles took a backseat to Maps, Music, Google + and search during a three-hour plus keynote session Wednesday at the Google I/O developer conference. Google first became a household word in Internet search, of course — and search is still very much at the forefront for the tech giant.
Google’s “search engine of the future” will “answer your questions, have a conversation with you, and even give you useful things without you ever having to ask,” Google executive Amit Singhal said as he outlined the company’s Star Trek-ie vision.
The keynote event concluded with Google CEO Larry Page taking questions from an audience largely filled with analysts, news media and developers. There wasn’t much new on the hardware front — including Glass — though Google did say there’d be a specialized version of the Samsung Galaxy S 4 smartphone on AT&T and T-Mobile coming next month that will supply for people who want it a more customized Google user experience.
And for sure, a chunk of Wednesday’s session concentrated on developer tools, leading to proceedings that at times got pretty dense.
But Google touched on plenty of topics of interest to consumers. Here are the highlights:
• Maps. The new version of Google Maps will be customized for you. In other words, the map that you’re looking at will differ from the map of the guy next to you. The goal is to produce maps that make sense in context, depending on what you search for and where you want to go. The map itself becomes the user interface.
Every time you click, the map is redrawn, so if you’re looking for a particular museum, say, you’ll only see the roads and landmarks that will help direct you there. Google compares the new Maps experience to a friend drawing you a map to their house.
Labeled search results (with short descriptions) appear right on the map. If you supply the location of your home and office, write reviews or choose favorite locations, Google will build maps with recommendations of places you might want to visit. You’ll also be able to decide directly on the map whether it makes more sense to head to a particular destination by car or public transportation.
Meanwhile, a carousel view lets you choose different ways to check out a location, via Google Street View, say, or business or personal photos that folks have taken. Google Earth 3D views are also built into the map with amazing images from outer space (in real time). At certain restaurants or tourist spots, you’ll be able to access panoramic indoor views. You can request an invitation to preview the new maps at maps.google.com/preview.
• Google +. Google says there will be 41 new features in its Google + social network. A stream feature automatically adds Twitter hashtags. A fresh multicolumn interface includes animations and looks good from afar (I have not yet tried the new Google +). Google has also improved the Google Hangout video chat experience.
But the neatest Google + demonstration I saw on stage — and that I’m most eager to try — involves photography. “Auto Awesome” promises to take a sequence of photos and apply tools to animate them automatically. And I’m jazzed (in theory anyway) about an Auto Highlight feature that aims to ferret out the best photographs from a batch. Indeed, I take lots of good pictures, and my own share of duds. Auto Highlight ignores the latter by in Google’s words, “de-emphasizing duplicates, blurry images and poor exposures, and focusing instead on pictures with the people you care about, landmarks and other positive attributes.”
• Music. In what appears to be a blend of — and a rival to — Pandora, iTunes and Spotify: Google enters the subscription music business with a $9.99 a month Google Play Music All Access service (after a 30-day free trial). The price drops to $7.99 monthly if you sign up before the end of June. The idea is you get on-demand access to millions of tracks, in addition to the songs that you already own. And if you’re playing a tune, you can instantly play a custom radio station that is based on that track. You can see which songs are slated to play next in that station, and change the order or eliminate music you’d rather not hear. Google starts you out with recommendations of songs it thinks you’ll want to hear based on what you’ve been listening to lately, the songs you already own, the stations you’ve created and other factors.
I’m looking forward to taking All Access for a spin but there are questions. As Forrester analyst James McQuivey puts it: “To compete with existing music services, Google’s All Access experience has to at least be as good as Spotify and Pandora, but unfortunately for Google, there’s not much more you can do to impress music listeners short of making the music free.”
• Search. Singhal announced some potentially important enhancements to Google Now, most notably reminders that appear when you need them. You’ll be able to say to Google, “Remind me to pick up milk when I get to Safeway,” and such a reminder is supposed to appear when you arrive at the supermarket. Apple has built a Reminders feature in its mobile and desktop operating systems as well, where it can remind you of something when you get to, or leave, an address.
Google also announced improvements to the so-called Knowledge Graph, Google’s less than 1-year-old map of people, places and things that takes search well beyond its roots. When you pose a query such as “what is the population of India?” you’ll not only get the answer, but you’ll also get the answers to natural follow-up questions, such as the population of China and the United States.
Arguably the most interesting development in search is in how you can increasingly approach your queries in a conversational manner, something already possible on smartphones and tablets. Google demonstrated conversational search through the Chrome browser on a computer.
Soon, you’ll be able to just say, hands-free, “OK Google, will it be sunny in Santa Cruz this weekend?” and get a spoken answer. Then, you’ll be able to continue the conversation and just follow up with “how far is it from here?” if you care about the drive or “how about Monterey?”
Not every search lends itself to the kind of succinct answer required in a conversation. “Why did the Beatles split up?” requires a deeper analysis.
“We will experiment with it,” Singhal told me. “How it feels in the wild and modify as we learn more. The usual Google way. Launch and iterate.”