Google I/O 2016, the company’s annual developer conference, is moving to Mountain View, California, this year, which means it’s right in Google’s backyard — one of the few places its driverless cars are regular sights on the road.
But don’t get too excited. The conference, which begins Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. Pacific Time with the opening keynote and runs through Friday, includes no mention of Google’s autonomous driving project in the official schedule, so the vehicles’ presence at the conference will likely be limited to, at best, a mere mention, or just a sighting here and there.
What the schedule does include, however, is a whole lot more. Google pushed out a meaty update to its I/O agenda on Monday morning, giving us the clearest idea yet of what it’s planning to reveal during the big show. Prominent sessions for the new version of Android (N), its 3D-mapping project (Tango), virtual reality and even the late-breaking return of Google’s Advanced Technology And Projects (ATAP) division hint at a conference filled with ambitious projects that aren’t entirely tied to Android.
When Google decided to move I/O to Mountain View (it’s usually at San Francisco’s Moscone Center) for the conference’s 10th anniversary, it clearly had something more in mind than just ticking off a milestone. Similar to what Facebook did at its recent F8 conference, we should get a good snapshot of Google’s vision of the next decade, or at least big chunks of it.
As for which chunks, here’s what Google definitely, might and probably won’t talk about:
The sure bets
Android N: It’s a given Android will be the headliner at Google I/O, but this year is a little different because Google has already announced Android N and even pushed out the first developer builds of the mobile OS. We already know it’s going to have split-screen multitasking, Night Mode (just like Night Shift in iOS) and new emoji. So what else?
The name, for starters. While Google typically reveals the dessert-treat-inspired Android name for the fall, there are hints at a possible brand tie-in like it did with KitKat (Nutella, maybe?), which could mean an earlier naming announcement. There’s also the on-again, off-again rumor that Android N will include support for the Android equivalent of the iPhone’s 3D Touch. And if you had to bet big on one feature, there will certainly be big updates to VR support.
Android VR: One of the most tantalizing rumors to lead ahead of I/O is that Google will unveil a standalone VR headset — similar to the Samsung Gear VR, minus the smartphone dependence. “Android VR” will have its own VR-dedicated hardware, making it a step up from today’s mobile-centric headsets (including Google’s dollar-store Cardboard) but not as powerful as the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
Project Tango: There are no less than five separate sessions on Project Tango, Google’s long-running project to create an ecosystem for real-time 3D modeling from mobile devices. It’s time for a big push, especially considering the progress Microsoft has made withWindows Hello and HoloLens — two high-profile systems that “see” the real world in 3D. Google will need to lay out a plan for getting Tango sensors into real devices, and combining the tech with Android VR seems like a no-brainer.
Android Pay: With Android Pay all over the I/O 2016 agenda and “exciting new announcements” teased, it’s clear Google is planning a big update to its Apple Pay competitor. If Google were to announce support for older MST (magnetic secure transmission) terminals and a way to use its mobile-payments system with Android Wear smartwatches, it would go a long way toward catching up to its Samsung Pay and Apple Pay competition.
Android Auto: It’s been about a year since Android Auto officially arrived in cars, and there’s been precious little progress since then. Apple CarPlay went wireless, so you can be sure Google will follow suit, but there’s likely more in store, and Google’s Android Auto session it’ll involve “more users in the car.” Sharing destinations, maybe?
Bots: Microsoft and Facebook both put bots — automated programs you can interact with via natural language — front and center in their developer conferences, and you can be sure Google won’t let that go unanswered. A session about building bots that work on the bare-bones Raspberry Pi says they’ll “detect faces, objects, and follow voice commands.” Just think of what you can do with dedicated hardware.
AI and Deep Learning: Of all the major tech companies, Google may be best positioned to bring AI and machine learning to regular people. It clearly plans to chart a path for where these technologies will go — there’s a major session entitled “Google’s vision for Machine Learning” — although it’s unclear what, exactly, will be relevant to developers at this stage, apart from updates about its newer projects and tools, including TensorFlow and AlphaGo, Google’s AI that beat a Go champion earlier this year.
Chrome OS: From a recent discovery in the code of Chrome OS, it seems clear that Chromebooks are going to get a major update that allows them to access the entire Google Play store. It’ll stop short of a full merger of Android and Chrome, though, but it seems the two operating systems are still destined to eventually become one.
ATAP: For a while it looked like Google ATAP was going to be absent from Google I/O this year because of a surprising change in leadership. But Google added an ATAP session at the 11th hour — a relief since the ATAP keynote from last year’s show was jam-packed with announcements. We’ll hopefully hear some updates about Ara, Jacquard and Soli, but we mostly want to hear what’s new, and the session promises “a feast for your eyes and ears in 2D, 360 and VR.” It also says there will show “ambitious blue sky research coupled with a driving application,” which could be the conference’s best shot at driverless-car news.
Chirp: The rumor mill recently churned out some details about Google’s supposed answer to the Amazon Echo, codenames Chirp, and some suspected it would debut at I/O. While there’s no question Google has some kind of Echo killer in the works, the company’s smart-home platform, Brillo, and Nest barely feature at all on schedule, so it doesn’t look likely.
Messaging: There have been persistent rumors that Google is working on a new messaging app along the lines of WhatsApp. While such an app could launch at I/O, there are a lot of unknowns on this one, particularly whether this would be an update to Hangouts or something new entirely. While we agree Hangouts is in need of a major revamp, we’ll probably have to wait a while longer for streamlined messaging from Google. At least we have Spaces, a group-sharing app Google announced on Monday.
Chromebook Pixel 3: Although it’s been a year since Google launched its flagship Chromebook, the Pixel 2, we’re not holding our breath for a new model. The Pixel 2 was already ridiculously (or ludicrously, if you like) overpowered for Chromebook, and there’s really nothing wrong with it, so it’s doubtful there’ll be an update.
Android Wear: Google hasn’t backed away from its wearable platform, and there are four sessions on it at I/O 2016. There will definitely be some updates (and Android Pay support could shake things up), but the description of the “What’s new in Android Wear?” session is blasé to the extreme: “We will share our vision for the Android Wear platform as well as tools available to both designers and developers.” This could be a housekeeping year.
The probably nots
Project Aura: Google renamed Glass as Project Aura, but since then the infamous headset has kept a low profile. It’s a different world than when Glass made its splashy debut at I/O 2012, and the wearable world has moved on. Aura will continue to make (quiet) progress in the enterprise — and there will definitely be a lot of retro developers wearing glass at the show — but the wearable world has moved on from Glass/Aura.
Nexus devices: Google just refreshed its Nexus phones in the fall, and there haven’t been any credible rumors about a new tablet, so it looks like we won’t get much in the way of new devices — at least not in the typical form factors, anyway.
Smart contact lenses, Internet balloons, drones …: As I said, it’s Mountain View, so self-driving cars are a wild card (see the ATAP session), but it’s doubtful Google will announce anything major for its big, world-changing projects, which are technically under Alphabet’s purview anyway. But we can dream.
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