Google has shifted it focus away from search and towards artificial intelligence, announcing overnight the “Google Assistant” artificial intelligence engine that it says represents the biggest shift in computing since the appearance of the smart phone.
“We’re at a seminal moment in computing,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai, announcing a new phone, known as the Pixel, and a voice-controlled speaker, known as the Google Home, both of which will have the Google Assistant software “at their core”.
The Google Assistant devices will use artificial intelligence to respond to users’ queries using plain language, and will allow users to string queries together, asking for instance “What is the best cafe nearby” and then following that up with “How do I get there?”
Google, the world’s largest search company, is a little late to the game for such personal assistance devices. Its rival Amazon launched a similar AI-based personal assistance speaker, the Echo, last year, and that device has proved to be so popular that other technology companies are having to scramble to catch up.
But Google says it has an advantage: the massive search database it has built up over the years, which now holds some 17 billion facts, which will help Google Assistant answer queries from users. In the context of artificial intelligence, it calls that database its “knowledge graph”.
“It’s clear to me where we’re headed, evolving from a mobile-first world to an AI-first world,” Mr Pichai said.
The new Pixel phone, the first phone that Google has launched without a partnership from a major phone vendor, will be the first device to have Google Assistant built in.
At a launch event in San Francisco, Google officials demonstrated the new artificial intelligence engine in the Pixel phone by finding recent photos taken by the phone’s camera, and searching the Google knowledge graph for local events, all through plain English spoken queries.
“We’re just getting started but in many ways we’ve been working hard at this problem ever since Google was founded 18 years ago,” said Mr Pichai.
“It is early days, but we are committed to this vision and we are going to work on it for a long time,” he said.
Because automatic image captioning will be a core part of the artificial intelligence experience, allowing users to search for photos just by describing them, Google claimed the new Pixel phone would have the best camera ever to appear in a mobile phone, better than Apple’s iPhone 7 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7.
The Pixel phone will come in two sizes, one with a 5-inch display, and one known as the Pixel XL with a 5.5-inch display. The available colours will be “Quite Black”, “Very Silver” and “Really Blue”, which will be a limited edition, Google said.
The Pixel and the Pixel XL phone will be available for pre-order in Australia from today through Telstra and JB HiFi , starting at $1079 for the Pixel and $1269 for the Pixel XL.
The phone will take advantage of another big trend in computing, too: virtual reality. Google said the phone will be the first device to come with the company’s own virtual reality system, known as Daydream. To allow owners to use the Pixel as a virtual reality device, the company also announced a new fabric-covered VR headset, the Daydream View, that will hold the phone up to the user’s eyes, much like Samsung’s Gear VR headset except simpler (it doesn’t have adjustable focus like the Gear VR) and lighter.
The headset, which will sell for $US79, will come with a small, wireless controller that that can be used to navigate around the Daydream VR system, allowing users to point at menus and objects in the virtual world to interact with them. The pointer is so accurate, Google officials said, it can even be used for virtual handwriting.
The Daydream View , headset will come in three colours: Slate, Crimson and Snow.
Meanwhile, the $US129 Google Home speaker will let home owners play music just by talking to the speaker, and have the Google Assistant artificial intelligence queue up the music. The Assistant will use the facts in the Google knowledge graph to help find tracks, even when the home owner doesn’t know the name of the song or album.
Google Home can also be used to answer spoken questions, such as “Can dogs eat chocolate?” or “How do you get red wine out of carpet?”
“This is really, really hard, and it’s something only Google can do,” a Google official said.
The speaker can interact with other smart home devices, such as Samsung’s Smart Things, Philips’ Hue lighting system and the IFTTT event programming system, and next year Google plans to release a software development kit (SDK), that will let any manufacturer add the Google Assistant to their devices.
Australian release of the Google Home speaker has yet to be finalised, Google Australia officials said.
Google also announced a new $US129 router for households, known as “Google WiFi”, that would allow households to easily set up multiple WiFi points to ensure proper coverage in all rooms in the house. During dinner time, parents would be able to shut down WiFi access on all the children’s devices, to encourage them to eat, Google officials said. Australian release of that device was yet to be finalised.
Also launched was a new, Ultra-High-Definition version of Google’s Chromecast content streaming dongle, known as the Chromecast Ultra. It will be available in November for $99, the company said.