From virtual reality to a new smart-home speaker, Google is showing off just how pervasive it has become even as it's squeezed by its biggest competitors — Facebook, Apple and Amazon.
Google showed off a VR system called Daydream, along with plans for headsets that will compete with Facebook's Oculus Rift. In a jab at Amazon, the company announced Google Home, an Internet-connected speaker that listens for your voice commands to play music or control lights and thermostats in the home. It is reminiscent of Amazon's Echo and will be available later this year for a yet-unannounced price.
In an attempt to outshine Apple, Google is also adding features to its Android operating system, including the ability to run apps without actually installing apps. That's perhaps the one truly new thing Google announced Wednesday. It is Google's answer to the pain of installing phone apps you know you'll use just once or twice, for shopping or booking a parking spot, for example. With this approach, the app runs on Google's servers instead of your phone. Only the parts you need get sent to your phone on an as-needed basis.
Meanwhile, the chat service Allo will use Google's computers to predict how you want to respond, saving you typing. It will also chat directly with Google to find information or navigate. Allo will compete with popular chat services such as Facebook's Messenger, which recently announced an artificial intelligence feature, and WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook.
More than 7,000 people attended Google's keynote Wednesday in Mountain View, California. Besides journalists and bloggers, Google's three-day I/O conference attracts thousands of computer programmers, giving Google an opportunity to convince them why they should design applications and other services that work with its gadgets and an array of software that includes the Chrome Web browser and Android operating system for mobile devices.
Android powers about 80 percent of the world's smartphones, largely because Google gives away the software for free to device makers. Google can afford to do that because it designs Android to feature its search engine, maps and other digital services, giving it more opportunities to show the digital ads that generate most of its revenue.
But Apple's iPhone carries more cachet with affluent consumers and often introduces features that Android copies. Apple will hold a similar conference in June to unveil its fall software plans.
Google's bare-bones entry into the still-nascent field of virtual reality came two years ago when it unveiled a cheap headset made out of cardboard. The company is poised to get more serious, given far more sophisticated options available for sale.
With Daydream, manufacturers including Samsung, HTC and Huawei will have smartphones capable of handling it. These headsets promise to be more comfortable and more immersive than the cardboard headset. Google is also distributing guidelines for a new controller with a few buttons, a touchpad and sensors to track its orientation and where it's pointing. The controller can be used to flip digital pancakes, throw things and cast a virtual fishing line.
Analysts are touting virtual reality, a technology that casts its users into artificial, three-dimensional worlds, as one of the industry's most promising areas for growth.
Meanwhile, Google Home and Allo will tap Google's computing prowess. Artificial intelligence, a term used to describe efforts to develop software that acts and behaves more like humans, has been a focal point of Google's for years. Progress in the field has helped Google's search engine comprehend the intent of people's inquiries more quickly and vastly improved the comprehension and responsiveness of its voice-recognition services.