Saturday, 11 June 2016 03:04

Google I/O 2016: Android N, Chrome OS, virtual reality, and what else to expect


Google is about to show us its future. Every year at its Google I/O conference, the company's top names get on stage to discuss what's coming next for their biggest projects: Android and Chrome, watches and TVs, VR and AR, cars and balloons, and so on.

The same will certainly be true this year. But looking over all of the leaks and rumors that have come out over the past few months, something stands out to me as being a bit different this time around — we don't know all of the nitty gritty details about what's to come. We really may be in for some surprises.

That's not to say we don't know anything. There are some big secrets that seem to have leaked out — especially in regard to VR. And generally, we have a pretty good idea of what kinds of announcements Google will focus on. So for those of you wondering what we're expecting to hear about this week, read on below.

Android N: of course we're going to hear about Android. Google switched things up this year by debuting Android N early, so it may not have as much to talk about on stage at I/O. We already know that it's getting split-screen multitasking, new quick settings buttons, improvements to battery life, and — most importantly — new emoji.

But there's almost certainly more to show. Google could demo the coming alternative to 3D Touch (or maybe not). It could give N a proper name or even announce a release date. How much of that will happen? It's hard to say given Google's recent timing. Lately, Android releases have been coming out around October. N seems to be relatively far along, but we also don't know everything that Google is planning.

Chrome OS: here's where things could get pretty interesting. Chrome OS and Android are starting to converge, and we're expecting to see the first big signs of this at I/O. What exactly will that mean? At first, it could look like Chrome OS being able to run most Android apps in the Play Store. That'd be a pretty huge addition to Chrome OS, and it could encourage Android developers to do a better job supporting large screen sizes.

What comes next? In an attempt to quiet rumors that Chrome OS would go away in favor of a desktop Android, Google said last year that it remains "very committed" to Chrome and that we'd be seeing Chromebook for the foreseeable future. So don't expect huge changes just yet. But Chrome OS is definitely going to get a bit more interesting this year.

Android VR: here's something new. Google appears to be planning a new virtual reality platform based around Android. There are enough leaks — including from Google itself — to make this seem like a sure thing. The question is, what exactly will it look like?

The Wall Street Journal reported nearly a year ago that Google was working on new virtual reality features for Android. Then in February, the Financial Times reported that Google was working on a Gear VR-style headset — something you'd be able to slide a phone into. Google already makes its Cardboard headsets, but this one would seemingly be more advanced.

That's what we're expecting at a bare minimum. Google will likely also show developers how they can create VR apps and games, and possibly we'll learn about whether third parties can create their own Android VR headsets. Given that Android has long thrived thanks to third-party support, that one seems pretty likely.

Project Tango: this could be the year Tango breaks out. According to Bloomberg, Google wants Tango — its tech for letting smartphones understand and map the world around them — to become ubiquitous, starting with an expansion in 2016.

Right now, Tango devices are only available to developers. For Google's vision to come true, all Android phone manufactures would have to get on board, building Tango sensors into their phones. Google would have to give them some reason to do that, and perhaps that's what we'll see at I/O.

Bloomberg reports that Tango will be used to assist virtual reality apps. If that's the case, it's easy to imagine this somehow tying into the Android VR announcement. (The Verge's Dieter Bohn floated that very idea not too long ago.) Point being, this could get very interesting.

Auto: here's something to consider: self-driving cars are part of Google X. Google X is part of Alphabet. And Alphabet isn't running Google I/O; Google is. So does Google X get to present?

I'm not sure what the answer is, or if the answer will even be consistent from year to year. But at least this year, there hasn't been any firm word suggesting we'll get autonomous car news at I/O.

There hasn't been much word about Android Auto, either. But it would make sense for the platform to come up. It's been on the market for a solid year now, and it wouldn't be surprising if Google has some updates to share, whether it be improvements to the platform or new partnerships.

Messaging and chat bots: messaging is hot right now. Chat bots are even hotter. Reports have pointed to Google working on a new messaging app that combines the two, and given the explosion around messaging this year, it'd be surprising for Google to wait much longer to get its solution on the market.

The latest details come from The Wall Street Journal, which said Google is working on a WhatsApp-like messenger, tied to your phone number, that'll let you talk with friends and chat bots. It sounds like you'll be able to message Google, which will then pull in the correct chat bot to answer your query. Some of those will be built by Google; others could come from outside developers.

The Information first reported on the new messenger, suggesting that work on it began back in 2014. It also said that Google was working on a second messaging app, meant for groups.

There's still a lot left unanswered. Are these really new products or are they parts of Hangouts? And if they are new, what happens to Hangouts? And why on Earth does Google think it'll get messaging right this time around? That's the real question we want to see answered.

An Echo competitor: Google wants to put its voice assistant inside of other devices, just like Amazon has done with Alexa and the Echo. The Information reported that some sort of "voice recognition device" is in the works, and last week Recode backed that up. The product reportedly won't be ready to launch at I/O, but it could be demoed. And if it's not, Google may still demo improvements to Now and its voice control.

Other updates: though there haven't been rumors about any specific announcements, Google has a host of other projects that it likes to discuss at I/O, which we could end up hearing about. It's been just over a year since Google introduced the latest Pixel, and alongside a Chrome OS refresh could be an auspicious time to launch a new one. Android One, Google's project to refine Android for developing markets, has been an I/O standby two years running. Google Photos tends to pop up (and is an easy win, considering how much people love it). Some smart home or IoT news would make sense, following last year's introduction of Brillo and Weave. And it's been a while since we heard about updates for Android Wear. Given the heavy Android discussion, don't be surprised if it gets some new features, too.


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