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Google I/O 2016 Lowdown: Android N, Instant Apps, Virtual Assistant, VR & more


Google has announced the new version of Android operation system, a VR platform, a virtual assistant and several other features for developers on Day 1 of the Google I/O 2016 developer conference. Here are some of the highlights:

Also read: Google I/O 2016: On what Google is doing to compete with Amazon, Facebook, and Apple

Android N
Google has unveiled a new beta version of Android N, the next addition to its mobile operating system (OS) range. Earlier, Android N was released as a preview in March for which Google says it received an “overwhelming response”. The most important addition to the new OS is Vulcan graphics API, which allows developers to directly control/utilize a phone’s GPU for better 3D graphics quality. Google has also added multitasking additions like split-screen and picture-in-picture modes, which is largely meant for tablets. Notifications in Android N will have an option for quickly replying to messages without opening them or getting away from the current screen. It has also integrated a Virtual Reality (VR) mode for apps to allow for direct CPU and GPU access for a better immersive experience.

Test run the update here on limited devices including Nexus 6, 9, 5X, 6P, Nexus Player, Pixel C and Android One. In addition, Google is crowdsourcing a name for the new mobile OS.

Instant Apps
Android Instant Apps is something like Facebook’s Instant Articles, but Instant Apps will work on instantly loading native mobile apps, not news articles. A user can do this by just clicking on a URL and you need not have the app installed on your phone. The external link will directly load the app on a smartphone. Developers will have to partition their apps into bits of executable pieces which is put together when you click on an Instant App link. Google already has a similar feature called Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which loads pages faster on mobile using an external Google code; it was recently extended for news articles on the Google mobile app.

Google Assistant
Google has introduced a new chat based virtual assistant named “Google Assistant”. This is an upgraded version of the existing ‘Google Now’ feature; the only difference is that the new assistant is an Artificial Intelligence (AI) based chat bot. The new assistant is something similar to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. It accepts a question through both voice and chat; you could also ask more questions around the same topic/subject of query and Google Assistant will retrieve answers for them.It can also perform tasks like changing reservation times for a ticket, setting calendar reminders, alarms, etc. The assistant is also integrated with Allo, which is Google’s new messaging app, and in Google Home—similar to Amazon Echo. Read more about it here.

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Firebase is a backend service which helps developers build apps for iOS, Android and web, wherein data is stored an synced instantly. Google bought this service back in 2014 and now Firebase has been upgraded into a “unified app platform for more than 470,000 developers currently using the service”. The new update will feature analytical tools for developers powered by Google Analytics. It will help developers to build apps and target different audience segments, and keep a check on live and older advertising campaigns. Firebase also has a new notification system with support for iOS, Android and web platforms,   powered by Firebase Cloud Messaging.

Firebase is similar to Facebook’s Parse which was  basically a cloud based backend for mobile developers. Parse was shutdown in January and after it was reportedly used to build more than 600,000 apps using Facebook’s APIs and SDKs available through Parse.

Google’s  machine learning chip
Google has built its own processor chip or application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC). Google has named it as a Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), which is a custom-made ASIC chip meant for machine learning. The chip will power neural networks systems, which Google uses to identify objects and faces in photos, recognize voice commands on Android phones, or translate text from one language to another. The chip is apparently also in use for Google’s search engine as well.

Daydream platform
Google has unveiled a new virtual reality (VR) platform named as ‘Daydream’, which is essentially built on top on Android N. The new VR platform will be limited to certain types of devices with dedicated sensors/screens. Daydream powers VR functionality in the Android N, and will also be used in special VR environments for YouTube, Street View, the Google Play Store, Play Movies, and Google Photos. Google says that it is working with streaming services like Netflix and gaming companies like Ubisoft and EA to load their apps on Daydream. This is a significant update from the earlier Cardboard VR system, powered by smartphones.

The company has also revealed its new VR headset’s reference design, which is expected to be released sooner. It comes with a remote controller that has in-built sensors buttons and a touchpad for swipe functions. The Daydream platform is similar to Microsoft’s Holo Lens powered by Windows 10, and the Oculus platform which has Rift VR headset powered by PC’s and Xbox’s and Gear VR headset powered by smartphones.

Image credit: Flickr user Chris Wetherell under CC BY 2.0

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