Google Assistant

Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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8 big announcements from Google I/O 2018

Posted by | Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, Developer, Facebook, Google, Google Assistant, Google I/O 2018, machine learning, ML, natural language processing, Sundar Pichai, TC, YouTube | No Comments

Google kicked off its annual I/O developer conference at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Here are some of the biggest announcements from the Day 1 keynote. There will be more to come over the next couple of days, so follow along on everything Google I/O on TechCrunch. 

Google goes all in on artificial intelligence, rebranding its research division to Google AI

Just before the keynote, Google announced it is rebranding its Google Research division to Google AI. The move signals how Google has increasingly focused R&D on computer vision, natural language processing, and neural networks.

Google makes talking to the Assistant more natural with “continued conversation”

What Google announced: Google announced a “continued conversation” update to Google Assistant that makes talking to the Assistant feel more natural. Now, instead of having to say “Hey Google” or “OK Google” every time you want to say a command, you’ll only have to do so the first time. The company also is adding a new feature that allows you to ask multiple questions within the same request. All this will roll out in the coming weeks.

Why it’s important: When you’re having a typical conversation, odds are you are asking follow-up questions if you didn’t get the answer you wanted. But it can be jarring to have to say “Hey Google” every single time, and it breaks the whole flow and makes the process feel pretty unnatural. If Google wants to be a significant player when it comes to voice interfaces, the actual interaction has to feel like a conversation — not just a series of queries.

Google Photos gets an AI boost

What Google announced: Google Photos already makes it easy for you to correct photos with built-in editing tools and AI-powered features for automatically creating collages, movies and stylized photos. Now, Photos is getting more AI-powered fixes like B&W photo colorization, brightness correction and suggested rotations. A new version of the Google Photos app will suggest quick fixes and tweaks like rotations, brightness corrections or adding pops of color.

Why it’s important: Google is working to become a hub for all of your photos, and it’s able to woo potential users by offering powerful tools to edit, sort, and modify those photos. Each additional photo Google gets offers it more data and helps them get better and better at image recognition, which in the end not only improves the user experience for Google, but also makes its own tools for its services better. Google, at its heart, is a search company — and it needs a lot of data to get visual search right.

Google Assistant and YouTube are coming to Smart Displays

What Google announced: Smart Displays were the talk of Google’s CES push this year, but we haven’t heard much about Google’s Echo Show competitor since. At I/O, we got a little more insight into the company’s smart display efforts. Google’s first Smart Displays will launch in July, and of course will be powered by Google Assistant and YouTube . It’s clear that the company’s invested some resources into building a visual-first version of Assistant, justifying the addition of a screen to the experience.

Why it’s important: Users are increasingly getting accustomed to the idea of some smart device sitting in their living room that will answer their questions. But Google is looking to create a system where a user can ask questions and then have an option to have some kind of visual display for actions that just can’t be resolved with a voice interface. Google Assistant handles the voice part of that equation — and having YouTube is a good service that goes alongside that.

Google Assistant is coming to Google Maps

What Google announced: Google Assistant is coming to Google Maps, available on iOS and Android this summer. The addition is meant to provide better recommendations to users. Google has long worked to make Maps seem more personalized, but since Maps is now about far more than just directions, the company is introducing new features to give you better recommendations for local places.

The maps integration also combines the camera, computer vision technology, and Google Maps with Street View. With the camera/Maps combination, it really looks like you’ve jumped inside Street View. Google Lens can do things like identify buildings, or even dog breeds, just by pointing your camera at the object in question. It will also be able to identify text.

Why it’s important: Maps is one of Google’s biggest and most important products. There’s a lot of excitement around augmented reality — you can point to phenomena like Pokémon Go — and companies are just starting to scratch the surface of the best use cases for it. Figuring out directions seems like such a natural use case for a camera, and while it was a bit of a technical feat, it gives Google yet another perk for its Maps users to keep them inside the service and not switch over to alternatives. Again, with Google, everything comes back to the data, and it’s able to capture more data if users stick around in its apps.

Google announces a new generation for its TPU machine learning hardware

What Google announced: As the war for creating customized AI hardware heats up, Google said that it is rolling out its third generation of silicon, the Tensor Processor Unit 3.0. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the new TPU is 8x more powerful than last year per pod, with up to 100 petaflops in performance. Google joins pretty much every other major company in looking to create custom silicon in order to handle its machine operations.

Why it’s important: There’s a race to create the best machine learning tools for developers. Whether that’s at the framework level with tools like TensorFlow or PyTorch or at the actual hardware level, the company that’s able to lock developers into its ecosystem will have an advantage over the its competitors. It’s especially important as Google looks to build its cloud platform, GCP, into a massive business while going up against Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft Azure. Giving developers — who are already adopting TensorFlow en masse — a way to speed up their operations can help Google continue to woo them into Google’s ecosystem.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – MAY 08: Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O 2018 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 8, 2018 in Mountain View, California. Google’s two day developer conference runs through Wednesday May 9. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google News gets an AI-powered redesign

What Google announced: Watch out, Facebook . Google is also planning to leverage AI in a revamped version of Google News. The AI-powered, redesigned news destination app will “allow users to keep up with the news they care about, understand the full story, and enjoy and support the publishers they trust.” It will leverage elements found in Google’s digital magazine app, Newsstand and YouTube, and introduces new features like “newscasts” and “full coverage” to help people get a summary or a more holistic view of a news story.

Why it’s important: Facebook’s main product is literally called “News Feed,” and it serves as a major source of information for a non-trivial portion of the planet. But Facebook is embroiled in a scandal over personal data of as many as 87 million users ending up in the hands of a political research firm, and there are a lot of questions over Facebook’s algorithms and whether they surface up legitimate information. That’s a huge hole that Google could exploit by offering a better news product and, once again, lock users into its ecosystem.

Google unveils ML Kit, an SDK that makes it easy to add AI smarts to iOS and Android apps

What Google announced: Google unveiled ML Kit, a new software development kit for app developers on iOS and Android that allows them to integrate pre-built, Google-provided machine learning models into apps. The models support text recognition, face detection, barcode scanning, image labeling and landmark recognition.

Why it’s important: Machine learning tools have enabled a new wave of use cases that include use cases built on top of image recognition or speech detection. But even though frameworks like TensorFlow have made it easier to build applications that tap those tools, it can still take a high level of expertise to get them off the ground and running. Developers often figure out the best use cases for new tools and devices, and development kits like ML Kit help lower the barrier to entry and give developers without a ton of expertise in machine learning a playground to start figuring out interesting use cases for those appliocations.

So when will you be able to actually play with all these new features? The Android P beta is available today, and you can find the upgrade here.

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You can now easily buy movie tickets with Google Assistant

Posted by | Fandango, Google, Google Assistant, Mobile | No Comments

Google Assistant is gaining some new capabilities thanks to a deal with Fandango that should make ordering movie tickets a quick and easy process. Simply tell Google Assistant that you want to buy some movie tickets and you’ll see what’s playing nearby; you can dial in the specificity to find out just what’s playing at a specific theater or at which theaters a particular flick is going to be.

The deal is going live on May the Fourth™ in honor of the Star Wars™ marketing holiday and the fact that advanced tickets for Solo: A Star Wars Story™ are going on sale today.

This functionality is something that’s been available on Siri, but Google Assistant allows you to make the purchase without downloading the Fandango app, which had pretty much negated most of the utility this feature had on Siri.

For now, this launch is just for Google Assistant on Android phones, but if you’re perplexingly a heavy user of the Google Assistant app on iOS, then you’ll be able to get your movie ticket ordering functionality sometime later this year.

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The NEEO universal remote is a modern Logitech Harmony alternative

Posted by | Android, Apple, apple remote, Assistant, ethernet, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, hardware, harmony, iPhone, Logitech, logitech harmony, Philips, Remote Control, Reviews, Sonos, TC, technology, Universal Remote | No Comments

The advanced universal remote market is not a very crowded market. In fact, for a while now, Logitech’s Harmony line has been pretty much the only game in town. Newcomer NEEO wants to upset that monopoly with its new NEEO Remote and NEEO Brain combo ($369), which is a system that can connect to just about any AV system, along with a smorgasbord of connected smart devices including Nest, Philips Hue, Sonos and more.

NEEO’s two-part system includes the Brain, which, true to its name, handles all of the heavy lifting. This is a puck-shaped device with 360-degree IR blasters dotting its outside perimeter, and which has one IR extender out (there’s one in the box) for connecting devices held within a closed AV cabinet, for instance. This central hub also connects to your Wi-Fi network, and setup requires plugging it into your router via Ethernet to get everything squared away, similar to how you initially set up Sonos speakers, if you’re familiar with that process.

Most of the setup work you need to do to get NEEO working happens on your phone, and that’s where it becomes apparent that this smart remote was designed for a modern context. Logitech’s Harmony software has come a long way, and now you can do everything you need to do from the iOS and Android app, but it’s still somewhat apparent that its legacy is as something you initially setup using a desktop and somewhat awkward web-based software. The NEEO feels at home on mobile, and it makes the setup and configuration process much better overall.

The other core component of the NEEO system is the NEEO Remote. This is a fantastic piece of industrial design, first of all. It’s a sleek rectangle crafted from aerospace-grade aluminum that oozes charm, in a way that nothing in the current Logitech Harmony lineup can come close to matching. The minimalist design still doesn’t suffer from the ‘which way is up?’ problem that the Apple Remote faces, because of subtle design cues including bottom weighting and the presence of ample physical buttons.

A NEEO Remote isn’t necessary for the system to work – you can just use the Brain along with the companion app for iPhone or Android, but the remote is a joy to hold and use, thanks to its unique design, and it features a super high density display that’s extremely responsive to touch input and pleasingly responsive to touch. NEEO took a lot of time to get this touchscreen experience right, and it pays off, delivering a clear and simple control interface that shifts to suit the needs of whatever activity you’re running at the time.

The NEEO Remote also has an “SOS” feature so that you can locate it if you happen to misplace it, and it can even be configured to recognize different hands if you want to set profiles for distinct members of the household, or set parental control profiles limiting access to certain content or devices. This kind of thing is where NEEO’s feature set exceeds the competition, and shows a particular attention to modern device use cases.

One NEEO Remote can also control multiple NEEO Brains, which is another limitation of the completion. That means you can set up NEEO Brains in each room where you have devices to control, and carry your remote from place to place instead of having to have multiple. The NEEO Brain is still $200 on its own, however, so it’s definitely still a barrier to entry.

NEEO otherwise does pretty much everything you’d expect a smart remote to do in 2018: You can set recipes on the deice itself, including with triggers like time-based alarms or motion detection (without using IFTTT). You can connect it to Alexa, though that functionality is limited at the moment, with more updates promised in future to make this better.

The bottom line is that NEEO offers a competent, intelligent alternative the big dog on the block, Logitech’s Harmony system. Logitech’s offering is still more robust and mature in terms of delivering Alexa and Google Assistant compatibility, as well as rock solid performance, but NEEO has some clever ideas and unique takes that will serve more patient and tech-forward users better over time.

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Google launches smart displays with JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony

Posted by | artificial intelligence, CES 2018, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Assistant at CES 2018, google home, hardware, JBL, lenovo, smart display, Sony, TC | No Comments

 We’ve been waiting for Google to bring its Assistant to devices with a screen. After all, voice assistants are great — until you need some visual information to go with their answers. But Google is not launching a Google Home with a screen. Instead, the company today announced it is working with JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony to launch new smart displays later this year. Read More

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Google Home learns how to multitask

Posted by | Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, google home, TC | No Comments

 Google’s smart speaker got a little smarter this week, with the addition of a multitasking feature. The new capability makes it possible for the device to accomplish two different missions at the same time. It was rolled out with little fanfare and first noted by CNET. We’ve since confirmed the addition with Google. It’s a bit surprising that the company rolled it out to… Read More

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Google Lens in the Assistant starts rolling out to all Pixel users

Posted by | Apps, Google, Google Assistant, google lens, Mobile, TC | No Comments

 We knew this was only a matter of time, but Google today confirmed that Google Lens as part of the Google Assistant is now rolling out to all Pixel phone owners. That’s something Google already announced at its hardware event, but until now, the timing was unclear. If you don’t see it when you call up the Google Assistant, though, don’t worry. The company says that this… Read More

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The Google Assistant wants to play games with you

Posted by | Gadgets, Google Assistant, google home, personal assistants, TC | No Comments

 It’s not just the kids on South Park that are fascinated with the endless possibilities of playing with personal assistants like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Virtually every kid over three has now surely figured out how to get Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant to do its bidding (or at least play the Moana soundtrack). Now, the Google Assistant officially wants to be their… Read More

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Google’s WaveNet machine learning-based speech synthesis comes to Assistant

Posted by | DeepMind, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, google deepmind, machine learning, TC, wavenet | No Comments

 Last year, Google showed off WaveNet, a new way of generating speech that didn’t rely on a bulky library of word bits or cheap shortcuts that result in stilted speech. WaveNet used machine learning to build a voice sample by sample, and the results were, as I put it then, “eerily convincing.” Previously bound to the lab, the tech has now been deployed in the latest version… Read More

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