Google wants to have it all: more data, more devices in every room of your home, and, somehow, more security and privacy to go with it.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other executives took the stage Tuesday at the company's annual Google I/O developer conference in Mountain View, California, to unveil some of its latest hardware and software offerings, including a new smart home hub with a camera and a more capable digital assistant.
"We are moving from a company that helps you find answers to a company that helps you get things done," said Pichai. "This morning, we'll introduce you to many products built on a foundation of user trust and privacy."
The company is asking users to give it even more personal information — and invite its products into more places — at a time when consumers and lawmakers are increasingly concerned about digital privacy. Major tech companies are attempting to balance the promise of smart devices, which often come with cameras and wake-word-operated microphones, with the reality that consumers also expect these gadgets to protect their privacy.
Skepticism of Google's ability to meet those expectations was top of mind at — and above — the event: An airplane circled the venue as Pichai was on stage, pulling a banner that read "Google control is not privacy #savelocalnews." It was not immediately clear who had paid for the plane.
A cheaper Pixel phone for the masses
Google is taking a page from Apple's book: It's making a more affordable version of its flagship smartphone. The move is part of a larger effort to enter more global markets and appeal to new customers who want a cutting-edge smartphone at a more affordable price.
The new Pixel 3a phone is half the price of its fancier forebearers. The 5.6-inch Pixel 3a will cost $399, while the 6-inch Pixel 3a XL will cost $479. The regular, higher-end Pixel devices start at $799.
The phones are slightly pared down versions of Google's existing Pixel phone line and don't tout any new features. The models look the same, and Google says the cameras will have night mode and portrait mode, like the Pixel 3.
Google's smart screen gets a (security) camera
Google is releasing a larger version of its smart-screen home device with one big addition: It now has a camera that can double as a Nest security system. The company's smart screens, which look like tablets mounted on smart speakers, are also getting a new name. Instead of Google Home Hub, the new devices will be known as Google Nest Hub and Google Nest Hub Max — a nod to the combination of the two Google divisions.
Thanks to the camera, the Nest Hub Max can do some interesting new tricks. It can use face-detection to determine when a certain person is walking by and show them custom content, such as their calendar reminders. The feature, called Face Match, learns to recognize your face during a setup process and saves that information on the device itself. You can also hold up your hand to start or stop a video or song.
The camera also turns the Max's screen into a video chatting device using Google's Duo app. It zooms in and pans to follow the person who's talking. It's similar to the Facebook Portal, though it lacks augmented reality filters (so you won't be able to video chat with a friend while you both look like mice).
In an effort to give users a sense of control, Google placed a single switch on the back of the Max's screen that turns off the microphone and camera. Additionally, a green light on the front of the gadget lets you know when it is on. In keeping with a recent company announcement, the device will also allow users to automatically delete their data after three or 18 months — this rule will apply to the Google Assistant's history across devices.
Google's Assistant is getting an upgrade
Google Assistant, meanwhile, is getting an upgrade later this year. New additions to the voice assistant include personalization features using information from your contacts, calendar, or places you often visit online. It will also run much faster on new Pixel phones, according to Google, as much of the AI underpinning the Assistant will work offline; this should allow you to zip through tasks with your voice as fast as you could with your fingers.
Pichai demoed new accessibility features as well, including a live caption tool (part of Google's upcoming Android Q operating system) that lets you turn on captions for web videos, home videos and podcasts on Android smartphones.
He detailed a research project Google hopes will enable computers to better understand users whose voices are often tricky for speech-recognition systems to parse, such as people with Lou Gehrig's disease.
Pichai also spoke about how Google is working to make artificial intelligence less biased with more transparent machine-learning models. Bias in AI has been a growing concern as the technology becomes a key part of everything from getting a mortgage to finding a job -- if the data used to train an AI system is biased, it could, for instance, deny certain groups of people from getting a mortgage despite their qualifications.
Android Q gets dark
The company shared updates about its next-generation mobile operating system, Android Q. Among those add-ons is a new dark mode, which makes backgrounds black and text white to be easier on the eyes and battery life.
Google is also adding features to help people use devices less as part of its "digital wellbeing" push launched last year. Google said 90% of people who use its timers stick to their goals to use apps less. Now it is launching a "Focus Mode" that disables "distracting" apps such as YouTube.
But Android senior director Stephanie Cuthbertson said the focus for the upcoming Android release is security and privacy, with more settings and faster software updates to support these issues in the background.
In a bit of awkward timing after the failed launch of the Samsung Galaxy Fold in April, Google said it was excited for the Android version it made specifically for foldable devices. "These devices open up a completely new category," said Cuthbertson.
A festival for developers
The multi-day event is typically set up like an outdoor festival for developers rather than a traditional conference. It usually hosts exhibits and a series of activities, such as a fake tattoo parlor and a roller rink. One night often ends with a performance from a well-known band.
Google I/O coincides this year with another developer conference: Microsoft Build. Last week, Facebook (FB) held its F8 event where it outlined new strategies for privacy, rolled out a new platform design and logo, and gave updates on its Facebook Dating service. Apple will take its turn later this summer.