Google, the undisputed search engine giant, held its much anticipated Google Hardware Event, also known as “Made by Google” on October 15th, 2019 in New York. In the Google Hardware Keynote address, the tech giant made it clear that their goal was to showcase a line of new Google hardware products which will make its smart home software an integral part of daily life.
As tech writer Richard Nieva reported at CNET:
“The search giant is betting big on hardware because it wants you to use its services all day long.”
And Google Assistant isn’t the only applicant with that goal in mind.
Google’s Competition For the Most Helpful Assistant
Google is certainly not alone in the competition to provide the most helpful AI assistant, and associated hardware and smart home gadgets are the keys to locking in a significant share of the smart home technology market. As Richard Nieva notes in his CNET report, Google is stepping up hardware development to keep up with rival tech giants such as Amazon who unveiled more than a dozen new Alexa products last month.
The Amazon rollout included smart wearables such as glasses, wireless earbuds, and even an elegant smart ring for the finger that ensures Alexa can go wherever we go. The Amazon Smart Oven can turn Alexa into the ultimate home chef. But Apple’s Siri has no intention of bowing out of the smart home competition in deference to Alexa or Google Assistant either. The Apple Homekit converts an iPhone into a universal remote so Siri can control lights, temperature, smart plugs, switches, and locks. Even the social media behemoth Facebook is getting into the gadget game with a new version of its Portal video chat device and the affordable Portal Mini, and you can get that smart Facebook video calling with guess who? Alexa built right in.
Google’s foray into the smart home hardware sector and the company’s emphasis on an ambient computing philosophy may be laying the groundwork for ambitious “moonshot” projects such as smart cities and autonomous vehicles, both in the R&D stages at Google’s parent company Alphabet. Google got serious about the smart hardware sector in 2016 when it recruited Rick Osterloh, a former Motorola executive to head up the dedicated device unit, and followed up with the introduction of the Pixel shortly thereafter. Today, Google is attempting to reap the hardware returns of the $1 billion investment they made in device engineering two years ago, and Rick Osterloh led the charge on stage at this year’s Google Hardware Event.
Osterloh made “ambient computing” the buzzwords of the Google Hardware Event this year and emphasized the theme of Google services being available “everywhere all the time”. As for smart home applications, Osterloh said, “When you get home, your locks, thermostats, they all know what to do.”
But of course, that was after the Pixel 4 rollout which was the pride and joy of the former Motorola executive, so that’s where we’ll begin our own coverage of the new Google consumer hardware products as well.
Pixel 4 and Pixel 4XL: Flagship Phones Dominate the Google Hardware Stage
As anticipated by smart tech industry watchers, in what many were referring to as “the Pixel Event”, the October 15th stage was dominated by Google’s reveal of the Pixel 4 and 4XL phones. The Pixel 4, starting at $799.00 and the Pixel 4XL at $899.00 will be able to interpret motion for hands-free smartphone functions via radar-based gesture control. Facial recognition technology will replace fingerprint scanning for Pixel 4 security, and a new 911 feature automatically calls emergency services if the phone detects that you’ve been in a serious car crash. Available on October 24th, the Pixel 4 will be able to record and transcribe voice memos and video transcriptions with a built-in app that won’t require an internet connection.
As a further incentive, Google is offering 3 free months of Google One with the 100 GB tier of cloud storage, and just $1.99 after the trial period. That storage could come in handy with the Pixel 4’s new telephoto camera and improved low-light and portrait modes catching more vivid photos worth saving. The advanced low-light feature even makes astrophotography possible.
Google is also taking another shot at the earbud market with improved Pixel Buds 2 earphones for $179.00, and the Pixelbook Go laptop is offered as a more affordable, high-end Chromebook starting at $649.00. Google also made much fanfare about its new streaming video game service Stadia, which is scheduled for launch on November 19th.
Ambient Computing: “Always On” Devices For the Home and Beyond
But here at HelpfulHome.com, we were most gratified to see that the Google consumer hardware team also trotted out a line of smart home devices under the event’s “ambient technology” theme. Privacy and home security were recurring themes throughout the event presentations. Advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) applications will now allow all Nest smart displays, smart speakers, and security cameras to listen for smoke detectors and other alerts and sounds with advanced audio sensing capabilities. That should bring Google Assistant up to par with Amazon’s popular Alexa devices which already have the capability to listen for sounds like breaking glass and record alarms as part of the Alexa Guard feature.
“Throughout your home technology works as a single system, instead of a bunch of devices doing their own thing,” said Google’s hardware chief Rick Osterloh from the event stage. In that light, the company unveiled an updated version of its 2016 Google Home Wi-Fi router, Nest Wi-Fi. The new router will enlist multiple smart home devices, using them all as access points for Google Assistant voice command and control and to provide a strong internet signal to every physical space in the home. Starting at $269 for the router and a single access point which also functions as a smart speaker, Nest WiFi has Google Assistant built right in and will be available on November 4th.
The Google Nest Mini: Affordable Smart Home Speaker Functionality
The original Google Home Mini was a wildly popular entry-level device for outfitting the entire home with smart speaker capability. Now Google has followed up with the new Nest Home Mini, at the same affordable $49.00 price but with improved sound and integrated machine learning to adapt power consumption based on actual usage. Google emphasized environmental responsibility at this year’s hardware event and highlighted the fact that the Nest Mini’s fabric covering is manufactured from recycled bottles in compliance with Google’s company policy regarding sustainability.
The Nest-Mini smart speaker can double as an intercom for conferencing and the newly added machine learning chip can recognize and learn the most common voice commands in the household. With the new chip, the Nest Mini can process commands locally without sending requests to the cloud for quicker responses and more precise control of helpful home applications, no matter where the smart home master happens to be.
Nest Aware 2.0 in 2020: Event-based Notifications for All Devices for $6.00
Google rolled out the new Nest Aware 2.0 program, the company’s cloud-based platform for uniting all Google consumer hardware to cover all Nest devices in the home. “Google Nest” is the new single brand combining the R&D efforts of the Nest and Google Smart Home teams, first announced last May with the debut of the jointly produced Nest Hub Max which is a smart display with a Nest Cam. Existing Nest subscribers have been paying up to $30.00 for 30 days of continuous recording to enjoy advanced Nest camera features such as facial recognition, the Nest Hello doorbell which can notify you when a package is delivered, and motion zones to detect activity with live-streaming cameras such as the $60.00 Ring Indoor Cam.
Nest Aware 2.0 is migrating from the old Nest app to the Google Home app as part of the new Google Nest branding. For $6.00 per month, subscribers get 30 days of event-based notifications which covers all of the Nest devices in the home. Nest Aware Plus is available for $12.00 per month with 60 days of event notifications and 10 days of continuous recording. For helpful homes with multiple devices, the Nest Aware 2.0 programs eliminate the costly pay-by-device charges of the existing Nest plan and will be available early in 2020.
Google Emphasizes Privacy as a Priority
If any obstacle can leave Google Assistant in third place behind Alexa and Siri in the smart home competition, it is the prevailing consumer concern with Google’s somewhat sullied reputation for respecting user privacy. That could make Rick Osterloh’s pitch for ambient computing where devices are always on “all times and everywhere” a bit hard to swallow for helpful homeowners with privacy concerns. Google emphasized that new in-device functions on the new Pixel 4 phones such as facial recognition don’t use the cloud, and Google Assistant can also handle many queries directly on the phone. Osterloh also said that Google’s goal was to give consumers more choice over privacy settings. Nest speakers and cameras now come equipped with physical switches to turn off cameras and mics.
That said, it’s wise for smart home decision-makers to bear in mind that Google relies heavily on customer information to build profiles for targeted digital advertising, which produces the vast income which makes Google a tech giant in the first place.