Google's voice-based Assistant is getting smarter and is getting a new set of eyes.
At Google's annual I/O developers conference in California on Wednesday, the Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report unit introduced Google Lens, a feature that uses machine learning technology to analyze a person's surroundings and provide suggestions based on what's around them -- all using the camera on a smartphone. Google also unveiled more features for its voice-activated Google Home, a new standalone version of its popular Daydream virtual reality headset and some new features that will streamline the experience of the latest version of Google's mobile OS, Android O.
In a demonstration led by CEO Sundar Pichai, Google said users can point their camera at a flower and Lens will detect what type it is, or point their camera at a concert poster and have Lens load up information about the band, similar artists and even add the event to a user's calendar.
For now, Lens is only available via Google Assistant and Google Photos, but Google said it plans to introduce it on other platforms in the future. The announcement builds upon similar technologies that Google introduced through World Lens, which allows users to hold their camera up to a sign in a foreign language and receive a translation directly onto the screen.
Unlike similar products released by rivals, such as Amazon's (AMZN) - Get Amazon.com, Inc. Report Alexa or Samsung's (SSNLF) newer Bixby, Google's smart assistant appears to be focused around enhancing the company's core search business. Based on a tweet from one of Google's engineers, the company has had this product in the works for a while.
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Apart from Lens, Pichai also announced that all of Google's AI-focused initiatives will be housed under a new initiative called Google.ai, which will include research, tools and applied AI. Google.ai builds on Pichai's vision of an "AI-first" future at Google, which he built on at last year's I/O conference, launching major products such as Google Home and the Daydream VR headset, among other things.
And Google also announced that Assistant will now be available on Apple's (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. (AAPL) Report iPhone through a standalone app, a move that takes on the Cupertino, CA-based company's own digital assistant technology, Siri. It shows that Google wants Assistant to be accessible beyond just the Android OS and Google Home.
"Assistant is your own individual Google," said Scott Huffman, Google's vice president of engineering for search, at the event. "Google Assistant should hands down be the easiest way to accomplish tasks."
Google introduced four new features that will be added to Google Home over the next few months, including "proactive assistance" to notify you of issues such as traffic jams on your way to your next appointment without prompting; hands-free calling from the device to any number in the U.S. or Canada for free; the integration with entertainment options such as Spotify, Soundcloud and Deezer; and visual responses to requests and commands on whatever screen is most appropriate, whether it's your phone or your Chromecast-connected TV.
The hands-free capability also enables voice-activated commands that bring up video from HBO Now, Hulu, Netflix (NFLX) - Get Netflix, Inc. (NFLX) Report and CBS, among others. And the visual responses seem like Google's answer to Amazon's recently released Echo Show, giving them all the benefits of being able to see search results, weather information and more, without having to add a physical screen to the Google Home.
Google is also rolling out a standalone version of its Daydream virtual reality headset later this year that doesn't require any cables nor a smartphone to be inserted into it. This was widely expected to be in the works before the conference on Wednesday. The new headset is being produced in partnership with Qualcomm (QCOM) - Get QUALCOMM Incorporated Report , HTC and Lenovo.
Google also announced some brief updates related to its augmented reality efforts, saying that it plans to release a second generation phone later this year powered by Google's Tango AR technology. One unique feature that's in the works is a visual positioning system, which Google's vice president of virtual reality, Clay Bavor, said is like an AR-based version of GPS. Google's system will use data about what's around you to guide you through indoor spaces. For example, if you're trying to find a specific kind of screw at Home Depot, Tango's maps can direct you to the right aisle to locate it.
Before wrapping up the keynote speech, Pichai introduced Google for Jobs, which uses machine learning to help Americans find employment opportunities. The application could prove to be a competitor to Microsoft's (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) Report LinkedIn depending on how much people use it. Pichai seemed to signal that it has larger implications, saying that it will address a "core need."
"I believe we are on the verge of solving some of the most important problems we face," Pichai said.