Google unveils Android P, Smart Displays and conversational Google Assistant

Alex Kidman 9 May 2018 NEWS

At its Google I/O conference, the search giant has announced a range of AI-led software features coming to Android this year.

Google's I/O conference kicked off overnight with a keynote presentation highlighting all the new features coming to the next version of Android – Android P – as well as a range of new app-driven and AI features that you'll be able to use on Android devices in 2018 and beyond.

"Digital Wellbeing" is Google's new catchcry

Google's entire business is built on capturing your attention, so it's an interesting and unusual step for it to push an idea that might actually limit the amount of time you spend staring at your phone.

Under the catchcry of "digital wellbeing", that's precisely what you'll do (at least in theory) with a suite of dashboards to make you more aware of where you're spending your time on an app-by-app basis when you're using your phone. Reminders will pop up if you're using one app for an extended period of time, and notifications can be bundled up into a single digest rather than pestering you throughout the day.

If you're someone who watches their phone into the wee hours of the morning all the time, the new Wind Down feature may be of use. It will turn your entire Android experience grey once a certain time passes, to remind you that you really should be catching more sleep, rather than catching up on social media.

If your phone addiction problem is an app-based one, you will also be able to set specific app timers for usage each day. Go over that limit, and the app icon will be disabled. At least for the public beta of Android P, that's a hard limit that will require manual intervention to override if you really must send one more Instagram photo.

Google Assistant gets a new voice and a new brain

If you're a user of Google Home, or Google Assistant on your Android device, you're probably quite familiar with its rather robotic voice. Google is going to change all that with six new voices coming to Google Assistant, including one from Grammy-winning artist, John Legend. No, really.

It's not just a case of a new voice for the same features, either. Google is promising a wave of new features for Assistant, including a more natural, AI-driven conversational mode that Google demonstrated by calling a hair salon to make an appointment. Other smaller features include an option that insists that you say "please" after each request to it. Small courtesies will matter with the new Google Assistant, it seems.

Extra! Extra! Google News goes for extra!

Google is also updating its News app with an AI-driven approach which will find stories of interest, filter out publishers you're not keen on as well as giving you a story-based timeline of events from different publications. If you're subscribed to publications that sit behind a paywall, your Google login will keep you logged in, even across multiple devices.

Smart displays take on Amazon

Smart speakers are so 2017. While we've only just got the Amazon Echo Spot here in Australia, with no sign yet of the larger Echo Show, Google's already showing off its screen-enabled smart displays, set to offer the same range of smart, visually enabled features as Amazon's. They're expected to come to market later this year, with LG, JBL and Lenovo already on board as manufacturers.

Click to buy Amazon Echo Spot - Black

Click to buy Amazon Echo Spot - Black from Amazon AU

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Google Maps goes walking for you

Google is finally integrating the data it has as part of its Street View project into its Maps app for walking directions, giving you a visual overlay of where you are and where you need to go, with arrows to indicate turns over the live feed from your phone's camera.

Google will also use its AI smarts to provide maps-based recommendations of places to visit or eat at based on your location, as well as social sharing to help you decide where to eat when you're out with friends.

Google Lens sees... everything?

Google is also substantially reworking its Google Lens feature, incorporating into the primary Android camera app. It will enable features such as real-time text copying from anything it sees directly into other applications, as well as provide information (including shopping links) for anything it can see and identify. The eventual end aim here is to provide an easy route for searches based not on text terms, but an understanding of what's going on in the real world.

Android P goes public beta

Google didn't announce what the P in Android P will stand for, but it did announce a public beta, and this time, it's one that goes quite a bit further than its own Pixel phones. Specifically, you'll be able to enrol the following phones (including several not yet available locally) in the Android P beta program:

  • Google Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, Pixel 2 XL
  • Essential PH-1
  • Nokia 7 Plus
  • Xiaomi Mi Mix2S
  • Oppo R15 Pro
  • OnePlus 6
  • Sony Xperia Z2
  • Vivo X21UD
  • Vivo X21

As with any beta, it's not wise to run if it's your only phone because bugs are an inevitable part of the experience, but if you're very keen and willing to take the risks, you can sign up at Google's Android developer portal here.

In terms of new features, Android P will have a new streamlined UI; App Actions to combine usage of apps in ways that make sense for your regular usage patterns; new gesture controls that should be very familiar to users of Apple's iPhone X; and a "Slices" feature that will allow information from one app to appear in another. Android P is expected to be available in final form for compatible Android devices towards the end of the year.

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