Google Releases Home-Assistant Device, Wi-Fi Router System and More

At an event on Oct. 4, the tech giant also launched a new phone, a streaming device and a virtual-reality headset at an event on Oct. 4.

by Ethan Baron, The Mercury News / October 5, 2016
CEO Sundar Pichai says that the company's new "Google Assistant" will "continuously get better as we make progress with machine learning and AI." Flickr/Maurizio Pesces

(TNS) — SAN FRANCISCO — Google launched a new phone, a home-assistant device, a Wi-Fi router system, streaming device and virtual-reality headset at an event Tuesday that starred the firm’s industry-leading artificial-intelligence software.

“The software’s magical, and the hardware’s ‘Yeah, OK,’” said Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask.

Google confirmed it will release the “Pixel” phone, which comes in two sizes and three color choices and has the artificial intelligence-powered “Google Assistant” built in.

“We designed everything about Pixel from the industrial design to the user experience,” said Rick Osterloh, head of Google’s newly formed hardware division. “We’re building hardware with Google Assistant at its core so you can get things done without worrying about the underlying technology.”

Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that as Google advances its work, the assistant will improve. “Assistant will continuously get better as we make progress with machine learning and AI,” Pichai said.

Users can ask the assistant for help when on their device’s home screen or in any app, said Brian Rakowski, Google’s head of software management for Pixel.

The Pixel’s 12.3 megapixel camera was rated by camera-testing firm DxOMark as the best ever for a smartphone, Rakowski said. The camera is integrated with Google Photos, and Pixel owners get unlimited photo and video storage in the Google Cloud.

The Pixel phone comes in two sizes: a five-inch display, and a five-and-a-half-inch version. Pixel will run Google’s Nougat operating system.

The battery can charge quickly, said Sabrina Ellis, from the Pixel product management team. “Pixel can get you up to 7 hours of power with just 15 minutes of charging,” Ellis said.

Google’s Daydream virtual-reality system comes built-in. The firm unveiled its Daydream VR headset Tuesday as well.

The Pixel phones can be pre-ordered through the Google Store, Verizon stores or Best Buy, and buyers will receive them by Oct. 20, when retail sales start. Only phones pre-ordered or bought in the Google Store are unlocked to accept various SIM cards. Phones purchased at Verizon stores or Best Buy are locked to Verizon as a carrier. The Pixel’s price starts at $649.

The phone comes in “Quite black,” “Very Silver,” and a limited edition “Really Blue.”

Also Tuesday, Google announced a new, modular home Wi-Fi router system, intended to allow users to deploy multiple devices to cover all areas of a home. “Traditional routers weren’t designed for the way we use Wi-Fi in the home today: we’re streaming, gaming, video chatting all throughout the house,” said Mario Queiroz, leader of Google’s hardware product management group.

Pre-orders for Google WiFi start in November, and the devices will ship in December, Queiroz said. It costs $129, or three for $299.

Google’s Chromecast streaming device, which has sold 30 million units, has been upgraded to “Chromecast Ultra,” compatible with 4K video, Google announced. At $69, the devices will be available in November.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited new Google product is the Google Home virtual-assistance device that the firm announced in May at its developers conference. On Tuesday, the company revealed more about Home, which contains Google’s “Assistant,” and is voice controlled, providing computer-voice answers.

Google has entered into partnerships with Samsung, Philips, and Nest so people can use Home to control home devices, and will continue to add partners, said Google’s vice-president of product management Rishi Chandra. “We want to make sure we support as many home devices as possible,” Chandra said.

The device can also answer questions, play music and TVs, and put photos up on the TV, Chandra said. Google has created “MyDay,” which lets users hear important daily information such as weather, traffic and their appointments, Chandra said.

Pre-orders for the $129 Home device started Tuesday in the Google Store, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target, and it will ship and become available in retail stores Nov. 4, Chandra said.

Although the event revolved around hardware products, it was largely about software and money, analysts said. The Google Assistant built into the new phones and home-assistance device gets better the more personal information it has about a user, and the more information it takes in from all users, as the software’s artificial intelligence learns.

That information is precious to Google, and the Assistant and new devices extend the firm’s reach, said Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead. “The more places that can gather information about what people are doing, the better you can create profiles and therefore the better you can advertise to people,” Moorhead said. “The more (Google knows) about you the better their ad targeting will be and the more money they can charge for advertising. If you adopted all of these technologies we saw today there’s literally no place that you can go in your home, with the exception of your bathroom, where they wouldn’t be collecting data on you — unless you take your new Pixel phone in your bathroom.

“Everything Google does, you can always track back to the way they make profits, which is advertising.”

The embedding of Assistant in the Pixel phones and Home represents a milestone of sorts for artificial intelligence — it’s reached a level of performance high enough to be included in new devices, said Vasant Dhar, a professor and data scientist at the NYU Stern School of Business.

“For users it means that it makes life easier,” Dhar said. “A lot of the day-to-day activities just get a lot easier — you want to book a restaurant, you want to book a trip.”

For Google, the Assistant provides snapshots of users’ lives, a richer source of data than what the firm gathers by monitoring people’s Google searches, Dhar said. “At the end of the day that’s what everyone’s competing for, they’re competing to know everything about you,” Dhar said. “Facebook’s doing the same thing through a different channel. Facebook is killing it. It’s a space that Google really needs to be in.”

©2016 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.