Google CEO Sundar Pichai told thousands of developers last week his vision for a future in which his company, once known just as a way to search the Internet, extends its reach into nearly every aspect of its users’ lives.
He envisions people telling a voice-activated device called Google Home to turn on lights or play music. And when people chat with friends on Google’s new messaging app, Allo, they won’t have to leave the app to make a restaurant reservation. Allo will actually suggest where they should dine based on the context of the conversation.
“We are pushing ourselves really hard so Google is evolving and staying a step ahead of our users,” Pichai said to a crowd of more than 7,000 people at the Google I/O conference at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre.
Google Home will directly compete with the $180 Amazon Echo. While Amazon has a head start, Google is betting that its dominance of the Internet search market will give consumers a reason to buy Home instead. The device, which will hit the market this year, can play music, answer questions such as “How much fat is in an avocado?” and operate Web-connected “smart home” appliances.
“Google Home could be a major force and could also dramatically decrease the sales potential of Amazon Echo,” said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights & Strategy. “The biggest sales determinant could be the quality of the (artificial intelligence) experience, and in the end, Google will likely win over Amazon.”
Google did not reveal the price of the small device, which will have a white top. Customers will choose their own color for the bottom to blend in with their home.
Many Google users are already using voice commands to search the Internet. In the United States, about 20 percent of the queries in Google’s mobile app are voice queries, according to the company.
The device will be a cornerstone of a concept that Pichai on Wednesday described as “Google assistant,” an ongoing dialogue between the company and users.
Google already helps them in many facets of their daily lives, from turning on a thermostat to translating words and searching for selfies in their digital photo collections. And Google’s expanding universe of products and services can learn their users’ preferences over time.
“The Google assistant not only knows about the world, it will also stand apart with how well it gets to know you over time, with your permission of course,” said Mario Queiroz, a Google vice president of product management.
Even though few people own smart-home devices, like Google’s Nest thermostat, some analysts are bullish that this will become a major tech market in the future. Just 19 percent of U.S. broadband households have smart-home devices, according to a report this year by research firm Parks Associates.
“Adoption of the connected lifestyle continues to expand as the supporting technologies mature and the value propositions of smart, connected devices and streaming services are better understood by consumers,” said analyst Brad Russell with Parks Associates.
Google also unveiled video chat app Duo and messaging app Allo, available on Android and Apple devices this summer.
Allo has similar features to Facebook Messenger, where users can chat with friends and add stickers. But it also has an option to have an “incognito” chat that is encrypted. While users are chatting on Allo, they can call on Google to suggest restaurants and book reservations through OpenTable without leaving the app.
Google also renewed its commitment to virtual reality, announcing a platform that will bring the budding medium to smartphones, headsets and apps.
The company has worked with phone manufacturers such as Samsung and Huawei to produce phones that will meet the specifications of Google’s new virtual reality platform. Google also said it has made a prototype design for a virtual reality headset and controller that will work with the Android operating system and shared that design with Android manufacturers. The headset would work with a smartphone.
“There are so many things you need to get just right,” said Clay Bavor, a Google vice president overseeing virtual reality, regarding the headset. “It has to be comfortable.”
More information on Google’s virtual reality plans will be revealed on Thursday, company representatives said.
Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, argues that VR devices could replace smartphones in the future, adding that he believes the ability to do computing hands-free and through eye movement is better than typing or tapping on a screen.
“This is the equivalent of talking about smartphones in 1995,” Munster said.