Google may not be ready to hold an in-person developer conference quite yet, but Google I/O was full of new developments across all of Google’s products and services. Well, one line of products was missing: hardware. If you were hoping for details on new Pixels, Chromecasts, Stadia consoles, or Nest smart home gear, you’ll have to wait.
But Google did offer new details on the long-awaited Android 12; enhancements to its core Search, Photos, and Shopping experiences; and reminded us over and over that, yes, it really cares about privacy. There was even a “one more thing” moment in Project Starline.
Below is what you need to know about Google I/O 2021.
One of the more hotly anticipated announcements of Google I/O 2021 was Android 12, the next iteration of Android for smartphones. Google said that it rethought every aspect of Android, from the basic UI to notifications to quick settings. The result? What Google calls “Material You.”
As Google normally does, it will launch Android 12 first in its Pixel phones—but it did not announce any new Pixel hardware, or any hardware at all. Good news, though: Google says it made under-the-hood improvements to speed up Android 12 by up to 22 percent. This should allow it to run on cheaper, less powerful hardware.
Android 12 will automatically generate personal color palates with a “designer’s eye.” The “Material You” Android UI revamp begins with a phone’s wallpaper: Select an image, and Android will recalibrate the device’s interface color palette to complement it. Google says that Android 12 will “flex” to every device, too, adapting the UI to different devices, with adjustments to layout, and color—even line widths. And that goes for third-party apps, too.
Quick Settings have been reworked, emphasizing Google Pay and your Google smart home ecosystem Home controls. New privacy indicators will tell you when apps are using your camera or mic, and a new Private Compute Core will allow Googe’s AI to perform tasks that would normally require help from the Google cloud to execute.
Finally, there’s a big change to Google Assistant: Just give the power button a long press to access it.
For the last year, Apple has made “privacy” one of the watchwords of iOS. At I/O today, Google responded with a number of privacy-focused features—such as the Android-specific features, above—alongside frequent reminders that Google does care about your privacy. For example, we learned more than 2 billion Google accounts now use Google’s “auto-delete” capability, which erases your Web and app activity after 18 months. Google also said that it’s working to eliminate bad passwords and is a strong proponent of phone-based authentication.
On Tuesday, Google said that it’s adding controls to delete recent searches (specifically by time, such as the last 15 minutes). Maps will also remind you that Location History is on, so that you can turn it off if you’d like. Finally, Photos is introducing a protected Locked Folder where you can store any images in a de facto lockbox—if stored there, they won’t show up elsewhere in Photos, or anywhere on your device.
Why should you care about a “Multitask Unified Model”? Because that’s what Google is predicating its next generation of Google Search upon. MUM is designed to understand the context of a query (“What do I need to hike Mt. Fuji?”) and search out the answer across text and video, and even in foreign languages. Google also says that you’ll be able to snap a photo of your hiking boots, ask whether they could be used on the hike, and the new search algorithm will understand enough about the specific model to answer your question.
Visually recognizing the world around you will be part of your Android phone, too. Google partnered with Simone Biles and Megan Rapinoe to put them “inside” AR, so you’ll be able to watch Biles perform a virtual tumbling routine. In Maps, you’ll be able to use your smartphone screen and camera to tell what businesses are as you walk by them, how busy they are, and even what dishes they serve. Google is also slowly rolling out Indoor Live View, an AR map of train stations and airports, in Zurich.
Google is tapping the power of Google Lens to help you buy things in the real world, too. On your phone, you’ll be able to tap the small Lens icon in the Google search bar, take a photo, and then Google will try and identify the object you’ve photographed.
In a future version of Chrome, you’ll also be able to quickly see if you have any items that have been left in shopping carts across various sites. Executives also said that Google will also search out promotional codes (as in Microsoft Edge), and apply any discounts of loyalty programs that it knows you’re a part of, all through Google Pay.
More than four trillion photos and videos are stored in Google Photos, and Google knows you’ll probably never look at the majority of them again. That’s why Google invented Google Memories, an existing feature that resurfaces older photos on a given day or topic. Google is now going to tweak this by adding what it calls “Little patterns,” which look for a number of related photos, such as images from birthday parties or hikes, and show them together.
Google also knows that for some, memories can be painful—whether it be of an ex-partner, a deceased loved one, or the time before a transgendered person transitioned. For these examples, you’ll have the option of excluding a specific person, photo, or time period.
Google also said that it worked with people of color to re-assess how its cameras take photos of Black people; how its cameras adjust for exposure and white balance; and how portrait mode separates Black hair from the background. This feature will arrive on Android 12 and Google Pixel phones this fall.
Google’s productivity and “Smart Canvas”
It’s taken a long time to evolve the concept of a “document” from an electronic facsimile of a piece of paper to something that embraces the modern digitized workspace, but Google’s Smart Canvas is how Google sees the future of work. Google Canvas takes a Google Doc file, say, and basically makes it a living, always-evolving document by linking to people, tasks, and files via linked “smart chips,” and more.
As a related initiative, Google also said that it’s allowing Docs, Slides, and Sheets documents to be shared and collaborated within Google Meet, and will add Meet video chat directly to those documents in the fall—no need to switch from one app to another. Want more? Our Smart Canvas story explains this further.
Google’s Google Meet may allow you to see a friend or colleague a few hundred miles away via video, but they’ll still look like they’re sitting in a distant room. Project Starline aims to eliminate that feeling of disconnect with a new combination of super high-definition video and depth cameras, connected by a high-speed interface that’s augmented by digital compression.
Essentially, what Starline is showing you is less of a 2D video representation than a high-res 3D model. Google’s only implementing it at its campus for now, but maybe we’ll see a commercial version later on.
Whew! That’s all from Google I/O for this year. Now, we’ll have to wait until we see these features in the real world.
Updated at 4:03 PM with additional detail.
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As PCWorld's senior editor, Mark focuses on Microsoft news and chip technology, among other beats. He has formerly written for PCMag, BYTE, Slashdot, eWEEK, and ReadWrite.