Assistant

Sonos took the mic out of its smart speaker for the $179 Sonos One SL

Posted by | Assistant, Gadgets, Google, hardware, play:1, play:3, smart assistant, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, TC | No Comments

Sonos has a new entry-level connected speaker that will give you all of its multi-room, high-quality sound — without the onboard microphones and smart assistants of the Sonos One. The microphone-free Sonos One SL retails for $179.99 ($20 less than the existing Sonos One) and comes with AirPlay 2, delivering good functional upgrades over the Play:1 it replaces.

Visually, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the Sonos One from the Sonos One SL, especially at a distance. It has the exact same dimensions, and the same industrial design, featuring a matte black or white finish and controls on the top. Those controls are the one place you’ll notice an obvious difference, however — the Sonos One has an additional LED, microphone icon and capacitive touch surface above the playback controls for turning on and off the built-in smart assistant and microphone. The Sonos One SL, lacking a mic, has none of these.

Unlike the Play:1, Sonos One SL can stereo pair with a Sonos One, which is a nice feature, because when using two of these in tandem in one room you actually only need one to have a mic for use with Alexa or Google Assistant. Two Sonos One SL speakers will also pair with one another, of course, and with combined savings of $40 versus the Sonos One, these are naturally great candidates for use with the Sonos Beam for a home theater surround setup.

Sonos OneSL 4

Sonos OneSL 1

Of course, you can also still use the Sonos One SL in combination with a smart assistant — just like you can with any other Sonos speaker, so you can specify to play music to them via voice control using any other Alexa or Google Assistant-enabled device.

The $179 Sonos One SL is now the least expensive offering in Sonos’ own lineup — but the $149 Sonos x Ikea bookshelf speaker is the lowest-price Sonos-compatible offering overall. They’re a lot closer than you might think in terms of quality and other factors that would contribute to a buying decision, but the Sonos One probably has a slight edge in sound, where the Ikea bookshelf speaker is a bit more versatile in terms of mounting and installation options.

Sonos One SL is up for pre-order now, and will be shipping as of September 12.

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Google falls to third place in worldwide smart speaker market

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Assistant, Baidu, China, echo, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, smart speakers, Speaker, United States, voice assistants, voice computing, Xiaomi | No Comments

The global smart speaker market grew 55.4% in the second quarter to reach 26.1 million shipments, according to a new report from Canalys. Amazon continued to lead the race, accounting for 6.6 million units shipped in the quarter. Google, however, fell to the third spot as China’s Baidu surged ahead. Baidu in Q2 grew a sizable 3,700% to reach 4.5 million units, overtaking Google’s 4.3 million units shipped.

China’s market overall doubled its quarterly shipments to 12.6 million units, or more than twice the U.S.’s 6.1 million total. The latter represents a slight (2.4%) decline since the prior quarter.

Baidu’s growth in the quarter was attributed to aggressive marketing and go-to-market campaigns. It was particularly successful in terms of smart displays, which accounted for 45% of the products it shipped.

“Local network operators’ interests on the [smart display] device category soared recently. This bodes well for Baidu as it faces little competition in the smart display category, allowing the company to dominate in the operator channel,” noted Canalys Research Analyst Cynthia Chen.

Meanwhile, Google was challenged by the Nest rebranding in Q2, the analyst firm said.

The report also suggested that Google should introduce a revamped smart speaker portfolio to rekindle consumer interest. The Google Home device hasn’t been updated since launch — still sporting the air freshener-style looks it had back in 2016. And the Google Home mini hasn’t received much more than a color change.

Instead, Google’s attention as of late has been on making it easier for device manufacturers to integrate with Google Assistant technology, in addition to its increased focus on smart displays.

Amazon, by comparison, has updated its Echo line of speakers several times while expanding Alexa to devices with screens like the Echo Spot and Show, and to those without like the Echo Plus, Echo Dot, Echo Auto and others — even clocks and microwaves — as sort of public experiments in voice computing.

That said, both Amazon and Google turned their attention to non-U.S. markets in Q2, the report found. Indeed, 50% of Amazon’s smart speaker shipments were outside the U.S. in Q2, up from 32% in Q2 last year. And 55% of Google’s shipments were outside the U.S., up from 42% in Q2 2018.

table ifnal final

Beyond the top 3 — Amazon, Baidu and now No. 3 Google — the remaining top five included Alibaba and Xiaomi, with 4.1 million and 2.8 million units shipped in Q2, respectively.

The rest of the market, which would also include Apple’s HomePod, totaled 3.7 million units.

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Sonos Bluetooth-enabled, battery-powered speaker leaks ahead of official launch

Posted by | Assistant, Bluetooth, ethernet, Gadgets, Google, hardware, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, TC, technology, telecommunications, usb, wi-fi | No Comments

Sonos has an event coming up at the end of the month to reveal something new, but leaks have pretty much given away what’s likely to be the highlight announcement at the event: A new, Bluetooth-enabled speaker that has a built-in battery for portable power.

The speaker originally leaked earlier this month, with Dave Zatz showing off a very official-looking image, and The Verge reporting some additional details, including a toggle switch for moving between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modes, and a USB-C port for charging, along with rough dimensions that peg it as a little bit bigger than the existing Sonos One.

Screen Shot 2019 08 19 at 9.02.48 AM

Source: Win Future

Now, another leak from Win Future has revealed yet more official-looking images, including a photo of the device with its apparent dock, which provides contact charging. The site also says the new speaker will be called the Sonos Move, which makes a lot of sense, given it’ll be the only one that can actually move around and still maintain functionality while portable.

Sonos Move 1566013610 0 6

Source: Win Future

Here’s the TL;DR of what we know so far, across all the existing leaks:

  • Can stream via Wi-Fi (works with your Sonos network like other Sonos speakers) and Bluetooth (direct pairing with devices), with Bluetooth LE included for easier setup
  • USB-C port for power and Ethernet port for connectivity
  • Similar design to Sonos One, with more rounded corners, but wider and taller (likely to allow room for integrated battery)
  • Built-in handle in the back for easier carrying
  • Contacts on bottom for docked charging (as alternative to USB-C)
  • Supports Alexa and Google Assistant and has integrated mic (neither available via Bluetooth mode, however)
  • Suports AirPlay 2
  • Offer Auto Trueplay, which automatically tunes speaker sound to your place using onboard mic

No word yet on official availability or pricing, but it’s reasonable to expect that it’ll arrive sometime this fall, following that late August announcement.

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Google’s new version of Android Auto focuses on Assistant

Posted by | Android, Android Auto, Apple, apple carplay, Assistant, automotive, CarPlay, computing, Google, Google Assistant, google now, linux, mobile software, operating system, operating systems, Polestar, product manager, smartphone, smartphones, Spotify, TC, Transportation, virtual assistant | No Comments

Google is starting to roll out an updated version of its in-car platform, Android Auto, that aims to make it easier and safer for drivers to use.

The version, which was first revealed during Google I/O 2019, has a dark theme, new fonts and color accents, more opportunities to communicate with Google’s virtual assistant and the ability to fit wider display screens that are becoming more common in vehicles.

Android Auto, which launched in 2015, is not an operating system. It’s a secondary interface — or HMI layer — that sits on top of an operating system and brings the look and feel of a smartphone to the vehicle’s central screen. Rival Apple introduced its own in-car platform, Apple CarPlay, that same year.

Automakers, once hesitant to integrate Android Auto or Apple CarPlay into vehicles, have come around. Today, Android Auto is available in more than 500 car models from 50 different brands, according to Android Auto product manager Rod Lopez.

Car owners with Android Auto support will start to see the new design over the next few weeks. However, updates will not be made to the standalone version of Android Auto, a smartphone app that gave users access to the platform even if their car wasn’t compatible with Android Auto. Google says it plans to “evolve” the standalone phone app from Android Auto to the Assistant’s new driving mode in the future.

Meanwhile, the in-car version features some important changes, notably more opportunities for drivers to use their voice — and not their hands — to interact with Android Auto. Users will notice the Google Assistant badge on Android Auto, that when tapped will provide information about their calendar, or read the weather report or news.

3Android Auto Google Assistant Badge

Other new features include a new app launcher designed to let users access their favorite apps with fewer taps. A button on the bottom-left of the screen launches this feature. Once deployed, users will see app icons, with the most commonly used ones featured in the top row.

Android Auto has also improved its navigation, which is perhaps the most commonly used feature within the platform. Now, the navigation bar sits at the bottom of the display and allows users to manage multiple apps. This improvement means users won’t miss an exit or street while they’re listening to Spotify .

4Android Auto Media

The navigation feature also pops up as soon as the driver connects with Android Auto. If a route is already queued up on a phone, Android Auto will automatically populate the directions.

This latest version also has a new notification button — located on the bottom-right corner — that houses recent calls, messages and alerts. Drivers can tap the mic button or say “Hey Google” to have the Google Assistant help make calls, send messages and read notifications.

Google has also developed an operating system called Android Automotive OS that’s modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. Instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars. Polestar, Volvo’s standalone performance electric car brand, is going to produce a new vehicle, the Polestar 2, that has an infotainment system powered by Android Automotive OS.

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Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk wireless speakers are a symphony of sound and design

Posted by | albums, Assistant, audio equipment, energy consumption, ethernet, Gadgets, hardware, ikea, Philips, play:1, play:3, retailers, Reviews, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, Symfonisk, TC, wireless speakers | No Comments

Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk collaboration took a lot of people by surprise when it was announced earlier this year, but the match-up is less unlikely than it might appear at first glance. Ikea’s entire mission has been delivering practical, quality design concepts at price points that are more broadly accessible — and that’s exactly what it’s done with its collaboration with Sonos, albeit with sound instead of furniture. The new $99 Symfonisk Wi-Fi bookshelf speaker and the new $179 Symfonisk table lamp with Wi-Fi speaker both deliver the excellent performance and sound quality that’s expected from the Sonos brand, in beguilingly practical everyday designs created by Ikea.

Symfonisk bookshelf speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 10The descriptor “bookshelf speaker” in this case means more than it usually does — Ikea has designed these to either blend seamlessly in with your actual book collection on existing shelf units, or to actually act as shelves themselves, using a simple add-on accessory kit that includes a flush wall mount and a rubber mat to protect its top surface while holding your gear (up to 6.6 lbs). They can also rail-mount on Ikea’s kitchen rail products for convenient kitchen installation, or they have rubberized pads on both the bottom and side surfaces for either horizontal or vertical surface mounting. Each speaker has two channels for cables to exit both vertically and horizontally for flush mounting, and there’s an Ethernet port on each and a cable in the box for hardwired connections to your home network.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 12At $99, they’re the new most affordable way to get into the Sonos system, undercutting the Play:1 by $50. Leaving aside their utility as free-floating shelves (with a decent 12″ x 6″ surface area, likely suitable for bedside tables for many), they’re a perfect introduction to the Sonos ecosystem for anyone who’s felt that Sonos hardware is too expensive. And they’re almost tailor-made to act as rear speakers in a Sonos surroundsound home-theater configuration. I paired mine with my existing Sonos Beam soundbar and Sonos Sub, and they delivered to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Symfonisk bookshelves and the Play:1 operating in that capacity.

That said, you do notice a difference between the Symfonisk bookshelf and the Play:1, or the Sonos One, when it comes to sound quality when they’re used on their own as individual or stereo-paired speakers. The bookshelf speakers contain entirely new internal speaker designs, as the form factor is nothing like any existing Sonos hardware on the market, and that means you end up with a different sound profile versus the more squat, rotund Sonos One and Play:1.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 7To my ears, the Symfonisk bookshelf speaker sounds slightly worse when compared to the Sonos One and Play:1. This is not that surprising — those Sonos speakers are more expensive, for one, and they really out-punch their weight class when it comes to overall sound quality. And even if the Symfonisk shelves are not quite up to par, they’re still excellent-sounding wireless speakers for the price — without a doubt I would opt to pick these up in place of Play:1s for parts of my house where I don’t need the built-in Alexa or Google Assistant of the Sonos One, but want high-fidelity sound. In stereo pair configuration, the difference is even less noticeable.

The Symonisk shelf speaker design seems mostly focused on practicality, but it’s a good-looking speaker (available in both black, as tested, and white). The rectangular box look is a bit harder to integrate as flexibly with your decor when compared to the Sonos One, in my opinion, but, on the other hand, there are some settings where the Symfonisk shelf fits far more seamlessly, like when wall mounted behind a couch, or when acting as a bookend on an existing bookshelf. The fabric speaker grill is removable, and you can expect Sonos to look at aesthetic updates to potentially change the look in the future, too.

Because these are wireless speakers, there’s another aspect of performance that’s important: connectivity. Symfonisk’s speakers (both these and the table lamp, which I’ll talk more about later on) worked flawlessly during my multiple days of testing in this regard, with zero drop-outs that I noticed when it came to music playback, and flawless integration with my existing Sonos network of speakers. I’m also likely one of Sonos’ outlier customers in terms of the number of speakers I’m using — I have 14 active currently, including the Symfonisk speakers, all operating fully wireless and without the included Ethernet connection, and wireless playback has been rock solid during tests of this new Ikea line.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 8Set up is also a breeze, whether you’re new to Sonos or an existing user, and is handled via the Sonos app (Ikea will also eventually add it to its own smart home control software, the company tells me, and you’ll be able to control it from both). Once added to your app, you can also use them via Alexa or Google Assistant if you have those linked to your Sonos system, and they show up as AirPlay 2 speaker for iOS and macOS users, too.

Symfonisk table lamp speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 4Like the bookshelf speaker, the Symfonisk table lamp is incredibly easy to set up and manage using the Sonos app, and works with Alexa/Google Assistant and AirPlay 2. It was also outstanding in terms of performance with wireless connection and working with other speakers, and you can use Sonos’ TruePlay sound tuning feature to ensure that it provides the right sound profile for your space with a quick adjustment process using your phone’s microphone (this also works with the shelf speakers, by the way, and I recommend it for any Sonos equipment).

The table lamp really impresses in two ways, including sound quality and — this might seem obvious — by virtue of it also being a great lamp as well as a speaker. The base of the lamp is where the speaker resides, and it’s wrapped in a removable fabric cover that looks great from afar and up close. The shade is a single piece of handcrafted opaque glass, which provides a very pleasant glow when lit from within, and which uses a bayonet mount to lock into place.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 13This mount and shade choice are not just about looks — Sonos and Ikea evaluated different options and found that this was easily the best when it came to minimizing reverb and rattle for a lamp that’s also capable of outputting a lot of high-volume sound. The choice appears to have been the right one — in testing, I never noticed anything that suggested there was anything rattling or shaking around as a result of loud music being played through the Symfonisk lamp speaker.

As mentioned, the looks benefit from this design decision, too. This table lamp at first struck me as maybe a bit too modern in photos, but in situ it looks great and is easily now a favorite item among my overall home decor. I do have a few small complaints, like that the large dial on the side is actually a simple on/off switch, rather than a dimmer or a volume knob like I assumed it would be. The controls are on the front of the saucer-like base instead, which is a clever way to make the lamp look less like a gadget and more like furniture.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 14The light itself supports bulbs with E12-style threaded connectors and a max of 7 watts of energy consumption, which are more commonly seen in chandeliers. Ikea sent over one of its Tradfri smart bulbs, with wireless connectivity and adjustable white spectrum temperature control. It’s the perfect complement to the lamp, and I was even able to quickly connect it to my existing Philips Hue hub for control without an Ikea smart bridge. With a smart bulb, the Symfonisk speaker lamp offers voice-control for both the lightning and the speaker component.

Where the Symfonisk shelf speaker differs from its Sonos brethren a bit in sound profile, the Symfonisk lamp speaker is surprisingly similar to the Play:1 ($149) and Sonos One ($199) and sits right in between both at $179. The internals are largely leveraged from those devices, according to Sonos, which makes sense given its industrial design is also basically a somewhat squat cylinder. Regardless of how, the result is terrific — it’s a lamp that’s actually a fantastic speaker, and you can definitely pull a trick at parties of asking guests to try to figure out the source of your high-quality, room-filling sound if you pick up one or more of these. As rears, they blend away seamlessly with the decor, solving the age-old problem of having to choose between quality surroundsound and having a living room that doesn’t look like a Hi-Fi audio shop.

The Symfonisk lamp is big, however — it’s about two inches taller than a Sonos One without the shade, and wider both in terms of the base and the saucer-like bottom. The look, while appealing to me, also isn’t necessarily for everyone (though there are black and white versions depending on your preference), so that might be another reason to opt for other offerings in the Sonos line versus this one. But this particular light/Sonos speaker combo is unique in the market, and definitely a strong value proposition.

Bottom line

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 3With the Symfonisk line, Ikea and Sonos have really pulled off something fairly amazing — creating practical, smart decor that’s also great audio equipment. It’s a blending of two worlds that results in very few compromises, and stands as a true example of what’s possible when two companies with a focus on human-centric design get together and really focus on establishing a partnership that’s much deeper than two names on a label.

Sonos and Ikea’s team-up isn’t just a limited collection, either — it’s a long-term partnership, so you can expect more from both down the road. For now, however, the Symfonisk bookshelf and Symfonisk table lamp speakers go on sale starting August 1 at Ikea.com and Ikea stores, and are very good options if you’re in the market for a smart speaker.

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Week-in-Review: Alexa’s indefinite memory and NASA’s otherworldly plans for GPS

Posted by | 4th of July, AI assistant, alex wong, Amazon, Andrew Kortina, Android, andy rubin, appeals court, Apple, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, China, enterprise software, Getty-Images, gps, here, iPhone, machine learning, Online Music Stores, operating systems, Sam Lessin, social media, Speech Recognition, TC, Tim Cook, Twitter, United States, Venmo, voice assistant | No Comments

Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.

Last week, I talked about the cult of Ive and the degradation of Apple design. On Sunday night, The Wall Street Journal published a report on how Ive had been moving away from the company, to the dismay of many on the design team. Tim Cook didn’t like the report very much. Our EIC gave a little breakdown on the whole saga in a nice piece.

Apple sans Ive


Amazon Buys Whole Foods For Over 13 Billion

The big story

This week was a tad restrained in its eventfulness; seems like the newsmakers went on 4th of July vacations a little early. Amazon made a bit of news this week when the company confirmed that Alexa request logs are kept indefinitely.

Last week, an Amazon public policy exec answered some questions about Alexa in a letter sent to U.S. Senator Coons. His office published the letter on its site a few days ago and most of the details aren’t all that surprising, but the first answer really sets the tone for how Amazon sees Alexa activity:

Q: How long does Amazon store the transcripts of user voice recordings?

A: We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that we’re only now getting this level of straightforward dialogue from Amazon on how long data is kept if not specifically deleted, but it makes one wonder why it is useful or feasible for them to keep it indefinitely. (This assumes that they actually are keeping it indefinitely; it seems likely that most of it isn’t, and that by saying this they’re protecting themselves legally, but I’m just going off the letter.)

After several years of “Hey Alexa,” the company doesn’t seem all that close to figuring out what it is.

Alexa seems to be a shit solution for commerce, so why does Amazon have 10,000 people working on it, according to a report this week in The Information? All signs are pointing to the voice assistant experiment being a short-term failure in terms of the short-term ambitions, though AI advances will push the utility.

Training data is a big deal across AI teams looking to educate models on data sets of relevant information. The company seems to say as much. “Our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems use machine learning to adapt to customers’ speech patterns and vocabulary, informed by the way customers use Alexa in the real world. To work well, machine learning systems need to be trained using real world data.”

The company says it doesn’t anonymize any of this data because it has to stay associated with a user’s account in order for them to delete it. I’d feel a lot better if Amazon just effectively anonymized the data in the first place and used on-device processing the build a profile on my voice. What I’m more afraid of is Amazon having such a detailed voiceprint of everyone who has ever used an Alexa device.

If effortless voice-based e-commerce isn’t really the product anymore, what is? The answer is always us, but I don’t like the idea of indefinitely leaving Amazon with my data until they figure out the answer.

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lucas@techcrunch.com

On to the rest of the week’s news.

Trends of the week

Here are a few big news items from big companies, with green links to all the sweet, sweet added context:

  • NASA’s GPS moonshot
    The U.S. government really did us a solid inventing GPS, but NASA has some bigger ideas on the table for the positioning platform, namely, taking it to the Moon. It might be a little complicated, but, unsurprisingly, scientists have some ideas here. Read more.
  • Apple has your eyes
    Most of the iOS beta updates are bug fixes, but the latest change to iOS 13 brought a very strange surprise: changing the way the eyes of users on iPhone XS or XS Max look to people on the other end of the call. Instead of appearing that you’re looking below the camera, some software wizardry will now make it look like you’re staring directly at the camera. Apple hasn’t detailed how this works, but here’s what we do know
  • Trump is having a Twitter party
    Donald Trump’s administration declared a couple of months ago that it was launching an exploratory survey to try to gain a sense of conservative voices that had been silenced on social media. Now @realdonaldtrump is having a get-together and inviting his friends to chat about the issue. It’s a real who’s who; check out some of the people attending here.
Amazon CEO And Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos Speaks At Air Force Association Air, Space And Cyber Conference

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

GAFA Gaffes

How did the top tech companies screw up this week? This clearly needs its own section, in order of badness:

  1. Amazon is responsible for what it sells:
    [Appeals court rules Amazon can be held liable for third-party products]
  2. Android co-creator gets additional allegations filed:
    [Newly unsealed court documents reveal additional allegations against Andy Rubin]

Extra Crunch

Our premium subscription service had another week of interesting deep dives. TechCrunch reporter Kate Clark did a great interview with the ex-Facebook, ex-Venmo founding team behind Fin and how they’re thinking about the consumerization of the enterprise.

Sam Lessin and Andrew Kortina on their voice assistant’s workplace pivot

“…The thing is, developing an AI assistant capable of booking flights, arranging trips, teaching users how to play poker, identifying places to purchase specific items for a birthday party and answering wide-ranging zany questions like “can you look up a place where I can milk a goat?” requires a whole lot more human power than one might think. Capital-intensive and hard-to-scale, an app for “instantly offloading” chores wasn’t the best business. Neither Lessin nor Kortina will admit to failure, but Fin‘s excursion into B2B enterprise software eight months ago suggests the assistant technology wasn’t a billion-dollar idea.…”

Here are some of our other top reads this week for premium subscribers. This week, we talked a bit about asking for money and the future of China’s favorite tech platform:

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Google Assistant comes to Waze navigation app

Posted by | Android, Android Auto, Apps, Assistant, automotive, computing, Google, Google-Maps, Lyft, smartphones, Software, TC, Transportation, Uber, United States, waze | No Comments

Ever since Google acquired Waze back in 2013, features from each have been slowly making their way back and forth between it and Google Maps — and today Waze gets a big upgrade with Google Assistant integration, which means you can use the smart voice companion within the app.

Google Assistant in Waze will provide access to your usual Assistant features, like playback of music and podcasts, but it’ll also offer access to many Waze-specific abilities, including letting you ask it to report traffic conditions, or specifying that you want to avoid tolls when routing to your destination.

Google has done a good job of rolling out support for Assistant in its own Android Auto in-car software, and even brought it to Google Maps on Apple’s competing CarPlay system earlier this year. The benefits of having Assistant work natively within Waze are many, but the number one might be its potential to reduce distractions while on the road.

Waze remains a top choice among drivers, and anecdotally most Uber and Lyft drivers I encounter still swear by its supremacy over the competition, including Google’s other own-branded Maps solution.

Google Assistant will be available via a rollout starting today in the U.S., in English only to start and on Android smartphones. Expect that availability to expand over time.

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Google and Qualcomm launch a dev kit for building Assistant-enabled headphones

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Bluetooth, computing, Developer, Google, hardware, headphones, Headset, jaybird, Qualcomm, TC, technology | No Comments

Qualcomm today announced that it has partnered with Google to create a reference design and development kit for building Assistant-enabled Bluetooth headphones. Traditionally, building these headphones wasn’t exactly straightforward and involved building a lot of the hardware and software stack, something top-tier manufacturers could afford to do, but that kept second- or third-tier headphone developers from adding voice assistant capabilities to their devices.

“As wireless Bluetooth devices like headphones and earbuds become more popular, we need to make it easier to have the same great Assistant experience across many headsets,” Google’s Tomer Amarilio writes in today’s announcement.

The aptly named “Qualcomm Smart Headset Development Kit” is powered by a Qualcomm QCC5100-series Bluetooth audio chip and provides a full reference board for developing new headsets and interacting with the Assistant. What’s interesting — and somewhat unusual for Qualcomm — is that the company also built its own Bluetooth earbuds as a full reference design. These feature the ability to hold down a button to start an Assistant session, for example, as well as volume buttons. They are definitely not stylish headphones you’d want to use on your commute, given that they are bulky enough to feature a USB port. But they are meant to provide manufacturers with a design they can then use to build their own devices.

In addition to making it easier for developers to integrate the Assistant, the reference design also supports Google’s Fast Pair technology that makes connecting a new headset easier.

“Demand for voice control and assistance on-the-go is rapidly gaining traction across the consumer landscape,” said Chris Havell, senior director, product marketing, voice and music at Qualcomm. “Combined with our Smart Headset Platform, this reference design offers flexibility for manufacturers wanting to deliver highly differentiated user experiences that take advantage of the power and popularity of Google cloud-based services.”

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Google launches new Assistant developer tools

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Banking, belkin wemo, Developer, Finance, Google, Google Assistant, Google Cast, google home, Google I/O 2019, lifx, Nike, Philips, smart devices, smart home devices, tp-link, wemo | No Comments

At its I/O conference, Google today announced a slew of new tools for developers who want to build experiences for the company’s Assistant platform. These range from the ability to build games for smart displays, like the Google Home Hub and the launch of App Actions for taking users from an Assistant answer to their native apps, to a new Local Home SDK that allows developers to run their smart home code locally on Google Home Speakers and Nest Displays.

This Local Home SDK may actually be the most important announcement in this list, given that it turns these devices into a real hardware hub for these smart home devices and provides local compute capacity without the round-trip to the cloud. The first set of partners include Philips, Wemo, TP-Link and LIFX, but the SDK will become available to all developers next month.

In addition, this SDK will make it easier for new users to set up their smart devices in the Google Home app. Google tested this feature with GE last October and is now ready to roll it out to additional partners.

For developers who want to take people from the Assistant to the right spot inside of their native apps, Google announced a preview of App Actions last year. Health and fitness, finance, banking, ridesharing and food ordering apps can now make use of these built-in intents. “If I wanted to track my run with Nike Run Club, I could just say ‘Hey Google, start my run in Nike Run Club’ and the app will automatically start tracking my run,” Google explains in today’s announcement.

For how-to sites, Google also announced extended markup support that allows them to prepare their content for inclusion in Google Assistant answers on smart displays and in Google Search using standard schema.org markup.

You can read more about the new ability to write games for smart displays here, but this is clearly just a first step and Google plans to open up the platform to more third-party experiences over time.

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What to expect from Google I/O 2019

Posted by | Android, Apps, Assistant, Chrome, Cloud, events, Google, Google I/O 2019, hardware, home | No Comments

Developer season has begun! Next week, Google will be putting on a big party at the pointy outdoor amphitheater in Mountain View. It’s shaping up to be a biggie, too, if this week’s Google earnings call was any indication. Sundar Pichai teased out a number of upcoming offerings from the company that we can expect to see on full display at the show.

From the looks of it, there’s going to be a LOT of news coming hot and heavy out of the South Bay, from new Android and Assistant features, to some rare hardware debuts. Here’s a quick rundown of what we’re expecting from the big show.

More Q

Quiche? Quindim? I had to look up the latter — it’s a “popular Brazilian baked dessert, made chiefly from sugar, egg yolks, and ground coconut” according to Wikipedia. Basically Brazilian custard.

We’re probably not getting a name either way at the event, of course. We will, however, get our best look yet and Pie’s successor. As ever, the latest version of Android will take center stage at I/O. With an expected arrival date of this summer, we’ve already seen some key pieces of Android 10 courtesy of a couple of betas.

So far, the keys are improvements to privacy/permissions and multi-tasking through Bubbles. Expect a lot more here. Rumors include pressure-sensitive touch features and across the board dark mode.

Unfolding foldables

It’s admittedly been a tough couple of weeks for the ascendant form factor, thanks almost exclusively to malfunctioning Galaxy Fold units. On this week’s call, however, the company reiterated that it’s still bullish on the tech. And it kind of has to be. Google’s devoted a lot of mindshare to making Android more foldable friendly, in hopes of jumpstarting a stagnant smartphone industry.

And while the Fold has been put on hiatus, we do expect a release date soon, along with Huawei’s Mate X and upcoming models from Motorola, Xiaomi, TCL and more. Expect to see the form factor positioned as the future of Android interaction.

The budget Pixel

Like other developer-focused shows, I/O isn’t really much of a consumer hardware event. That’s likely to change this year, however. In an earnings call this week, Sundar Pichai all but confirmed the long-rumored arrival of the Pixel 3a. Initially floated as the Pixel Lite, the budget take on the company’s flagship is designed to curb stagnate smartphone sales by offering some flagship features at a lower price point.

Rumors so far have the product somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 and include, among other things, the return of the headphone jack — an acknowledgment that Bluetooth headphones are still cost prohibitive. Equally interesting, this would make a push to roughly a six-month release cycle for Pixel products, assuming the 4 arrives around an October time frame.

Google’s made it clear that the Pixel line is about more than just showing off the latest version of Android, and a massive investment in HTC’s hardware team that includes a new Taipei campus certainly demonstrates that it’s not screwing around here.

Gaming

Stadia had its moment at GDC back in March. The company is harnessing its live-streaming technology to finally help gamers realize the promise of going hardware agnostic. Stadia was far and away the buzziest announcement out of the gaming show, but Google held back a lot of details, only to have Apple reveal its own gaming strategy a couple of weeks later.

Pichai talked up the service during Alphabet’s earnings call, seemingly priming the pump for some stage time at I/O next week.

Smart Home

Google Hardware Event 2018

Growing its smartphone business has been a struggle, but Google’s been firing on all cylinders on the home front. Assistant is a stronger offering than Alexa, and hardware like the Home Mini and Hub have been selling briskly. We’ll undoubtedly see a lot more tricks out of Assistant this time around, including a bit of focus on AI and Machine Learning smarts.

In addition to a new Pixel, we may also be getting a smart home piece of hardware from Google in the form of the Nest Hub Max. As the name implies, the device is a bigger take on the smart screen — 10 inches, according to rumors — with a focus on serving as a centralized smart home panel. The device will no doubt be primed to work well with other Google Home and Nest offerings, at a higher price point than Hub.

Etc.

Expect more on the ARCore front at the show. The oft-neglected Wear OS, which just got a nice update this week, could get some love as well. Ditto for Android Automotive. ChromeOS will be getting some face time, as well, though I’d be surprised to see much in the way of hardware from any of the above.

Whatever comes, we’ll be on-site at Mountain View next week, bringing it to you live.

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