Google I/O is right around the corner, and this year’s a bit different. Google’s holding the event closer to home — at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. And everything’s happening outside in the cool breeze of the Bay Area. This is different scenery than the last several years that have at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, and we’re hoping that this means the event itself is going to have some fresh scenery as well.
Among many other things, this year looks like it’s going to be heavy on virtual reality, with a little bit of Android N, Chrome OS, Project Tango, ATAP, and messaging sprinkled in for good measure…
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The first and most obvious headliner for this year appears to be virtual reality, specifically a new platform under the name of Android VR. The company that brought a primitive and basic entry into virtual reality in the form of Cardboard just a few years ago is expected to get serious about the technology this week.
How do we know? Veteran tech journalist Peter Rojas said last week that Android VR is set to launch as a dedicated, standalone headset. Details other than this are a bit light at the moment, but this corroborates earlier reports and the mention of “AndroidVR” we saw the other day in the latest Unreal Engine preview. Rojas says that this Android VR headset will be “less powerful than the Vive or Rift.” But according to his sources, it will be a better experience than the Gear VR.
Back in February, the Financial Times reported that Google was working on a standalone headset that would not require a smartphone and that new VR software for Android might be shown off at Google I/O in May. This report, however, suggested that actual VR hardware would be introduced sometime in September.
The announcement of something called Android VR, though, is all but confirmed. If hardware is in the picture, it would make sense for Google to make this its developer handout so that software/apps/experiences can be ready for a wider release sometime later this year (as FT seems to suggest).
In a similar category, Google is expected to talk a lot about Project Tango this week. Tango is one of the only projects that has graduated from Google’s ATAP experimental technologies division to Google proper, and it involves mapping virtual spaces in 3D. The reasons for Tango to be present at an event focused heavily on VR are obvious.
To add fuel to this rumor, Bloomberg just reported last week that Google is planning on tapping into its Project Tango technology to offer superior interior 3D mapping of buildings and plans to make the technology ubiquitous:
The Alphabet Inc. unit wants to digitally map the interiors of buildings in 3-D down to a resolution of a few inches, and make money in virtual reality along the way, through a project named Tango… The company plans a big expansion of the technology this year and ultimately wants to make it ubiquitous, according to a person familiar with the situation. Job postings and recent updates to Tango’s developer software show steps toward this ambitious goal.
On top of this, Lenovo and Google just showed off their (the first!) Project Tango-powered smartphone earlier this year at CES, and while we expect to see more about the phone at Tech World 2016 next month, it’s also possible — dare I say likely — that Google is going to make some mention of the device at I/O. Lenovo announced at MWC in Barcelona earlier this year that its first Project Tango-enabled device would be launched later this summer.
Google typically uses its I/O developer conference to introduce to the world the latest version of its Android mobile OS. Not this year. Google introduced the developer preview of Android N oddly early this year (here’s how to install it on your Nexus phone if you haven’t yet), which means we know most of what’s going to be included with the release set to go golden later this year. What we don’t know is how Android VR is going to tie into Android N.
It’s also possible that, beyond Android VR, there are some things that Google is holding back about Android N. So far we’ve seen multi-window support, picture-in-picture mode, a brand new notification shade, the return of Night mode, improvements to Doze, a new settings app, and more. We’ve probably seen most of what’s going to launch with N, but it’s possible that there are some features that just weren’t ready for the earlier releases.
The latest reports suggest that Google at one point planned to introduce its 3D Touch copy for Android N, but that those plans have been scrapped. As Recode reported last week, the support for such a feature seems to have been put on hold. If the company does pass on 3D Touch for the N release, it’s going to mean that many Android OEMs that are already implementing the feature are going to be stuck building it atop Android themselves for another year.
Android and Chrome OS convergence?
One of the big things that Google could be holding back is the convergence of Android and Chrome OS. Google is on the record saying that Chrome OS is not folding into Android, but it looks like some amount of interplay between the two is set to begin (and some has already, with the release of the ARC welder Chrome extension last year).
Reddit user TheWiseYoda spotted a setting in Chrome OS in April called “Enable Android Apps to run on your Chromebook”. Version 51 of Chrome OS briefly showed the ability to enable the Play Store in Chrome, and users who have enabled the setting said that the Play Store app would open and show a tutorial, but wouldn’t work and quits unexpectedly.
Google is still confident in its lineup of Chromebooks and doesn’t plan to stop putting Chrome OS on them, but it appears nonetheless that, if nothing else, Chrome OS is about to become a lot more powerful. Especially with the lackluster sales of the Pixel C that launched last year, it would be nice if the company launched a convertible later this year based on this Chrome OS/Android hybrid to take on the likes of the Microsoft Surface and the iPad Pro.
Messaging and Google Hangouts
In case you haven’t heard, messaging bots are all the rage lately. Facebook made a big push with several updates to its Messenger platform earlier this year, and Google is rumored to be planning improvements to its messaging platform as well. According to the well-connected Derek Ross last year, Google wants to make Hangouts better at Hangouts, and is planning to strip SMS support to do so.
Another report from The Wall Street Journal last year said that Google is planning to tap artificial intelligence and its massive amounts of data to introduce a service similar to Facebook’s “M”. The feature — perhaps part of Hangouts itself as WSJ says you’ll be able to text people from this app — would introduce bots that can interface with you the way a human would. Like Facebook’s offerings, developers will be able to make their own chatbots.
Android Wear, Android Pay, Chirp?, ATAP and more…
The latest addition to the anticipation is Android Wear, which we now know is going to have more presence at the event than previously expected. Google just today added several new sessions to the I/O 2016 lineup, including those titled “What’s new in Android Wear?”, “Android Wear: Connectivity”, “Android Wear: Developing engaging apps”, and “Android Wear: Watch faces”. We don’t really know what this is going to entail, but we do know that HTC might be planning a smartwatch launch, and that Android Wear still doesn’t have support for Android Pay. Google also recently added a session called “Android Pay everywhere: New developments”.
While the session wasn’t on the event schedule at first, I’m ecstatic to say that ATAP is getting a keynote again this year. Last year we saw the introduction of Project Soli, Project Jacquard, and more. Hopefully this year, in a session called “Bridging the physical and digital. Image the possibility. ATAP.”, the group is planning to update us on these exciting projects. There are four projects that I desperately want to hear about at I/O this year, and three of them fall under the ATAP umbrella.
One of the more interesting recent rumors is that Google is planning a competitor to Amazon’s Echo — codenamed “Chirp”. The Information first reported about the device, and last week Recode corroborated its existence and seemed to suggest that we might get a peek at it this week. Recode says that it won’t launch this week, but says that “voice search and intelligent personal assistance will occupy center stage at the company’s splash show, along with virtual reality.”
We’re doubling-down on I/O this year just as we did last year (you can find Seth and myself on Twitter), so stay tuned for the latest as we bring you live blogs, hands-on time, videos, and more straight from Mountain View. You can follow us on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook.