While I couldn’t be with my co-hosts on @DoubleTapCanada this week due to man-flu, I was able to listen to Shaun and Tim rant on spectacularly on Episode 52 about the launch of the new Google hardware and software. I say spectacularly because it was my experience during the event that none of us actually enjoyed a single second of it.
And from what I heard on this week’s show, the guys may have changed their tune a bit. While we all agree that the event itself was a boring and corporate event with as much life in it as a squashed snail, I personally thought that it also showed nothing new, or exciting, or bold, or innovative. So overall, as you might guess, I wasn’t impressed.
Google announced lots of new hardware such as the Google Home Hub, two new Pixel 3 smartphones as well as a wireless charging stand, a new tablet called the Pixel Slate and a new Chromecast.
However, in amongst my pangs of boredom, and hunger, there were one or two hidden gems which only really came to light after a bit of reading afterwards. Here’s my top 5 things to know about the Google Event.
5. Google Home Hub
This was the most hotly-tipped piece of hardware to come from the guys and girls at Google. Something new – something which would compete with say, the Amazon Echo Show? Well, if that was the intention, it overshot it by a country mile or twelve.
Let me explain. Yes, it is a tablet-like device in the same vein as the Amazon Echo Show. Both have a 7-inch screen (unless you pick up the new 2018 Echo Show which instead has a 10-inch screen) but it differs on its capabilities. While both devices will let you use their respective built-in smart assistants using their built-in microphones, the key difference is that is really all the Home Hub offers. It will show you basic information like calendar events and traffic updates, and you can control smart devices like bulbs and thermostats and even play music on it as well as watch Youtube, but that’s about it. There’s no web browser on there or much else you can do with it unless you fancy paying over £100 for a photo frame, which I don’t. There’s also no camera on there – Google say that’s because people might want to put these into their bedrooms and don’t want a camera able to peek at them – which is fair enough, although couldn’t you just put a bit of sticky paper over it if it bothered you that much? What it means is video-calling won’t ever be possible for this device.
So if it’s so bad, I hear you cry, why even feature it in your top 5 things to know about? It’s a fair question. Unbelieveable as it sounds, I am a reasonable person, and while it’s not something I’d buy for myself, you might. And the good news about this product is that it will have full accessibility on there.
It’s already been seen on Google smart displays out on the market at the moment such as the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View, which means it’s also part of the software inside the new Google Home Hub.
The options for accessibility are in the Google Home app which you would need to set up this device, or indeed any other Google product. Once in there you’ll find options for audio descriptions, Talkback (the Android screenreader), colour correction, colour inversion, screen magnification, high-contrast text and closed captioning. There’s also an option to use audio cues so you know that your assistant has heard your request and a cue that lets you know it has been accepted.
Personally, I think the Google Home Hub is just a big remote control for all of the smart devices in what Google now calls “our thoughtful home”, so while I don’t intend to buy one, it’s good to know that us blind folk who do want one can buy it knowing we can use it.
4. A New Chromecast
I often wondered during the Made by Google event that I might have dropped off for a few minutes, and now I’m convinced I did. I have no recollection of the team mentioning anything about a new Chromecast on the stage, but I was pleasantly surprised to read about it later.
My Chromecast has lived in a drawer in my tech dungeon for a while now because I have Apple TV. Simple as that really. There’s nothing wrong with Chromecast but I just don’t use it. In fact, I use my Chromecast Audio much more. Up until the Sonos Play 5 introduced Airplay 2, I had my Chromecast Audio hooked up to the 3.5mm input jack on the Sonos so I could bounce my music over to it wirelessly.
However, the latest version of Chromecast is going to bring streaming video and audio together for the first time – meaning no need for two separate dongles. Good news! Also, with an update coming soon, you’ll be able to sync up multiple Chromecasts and play audio around your home.
I didn’t realise, until I read an article about it, that the Google Chromecast hasn’t been updated for three years and despite one of the changes being different colours (who cares?!) it will be a (whopping) 15% faster and stream 60fps video at 1080p. If you care about video picture quality this will be great news for you but if your vision is anything like mine, then you won’t care. But that 15% speed increase, that’s got to be good, hasn’t it? I am trying here – honest!
3 Call Screen Feature
Don’t you hate it when you get a call from a number you don’t know and you just want to get rid of it?
That’s what Google’s Call Screen tells us it will do. Using their new Duplex technology, Google’s Assistant can answer calls for you on your behalf.
It works by answering your phone and letting the caller know that your assistant is responding on your behalf and why they are calling. At this point, the entire conversation is transcribed on to your lock screen in real time so you can decide to answer the call or hang up.
I’ve given this feature a fair beating over the past few months but seeing it in action is pretty impressive. While the examples of how Duplex can be used seem a bit gimmicky to me – asking your assistant to arrange a hair appointment or book a table at a restaurant – I actually think this technology could be incredibly useful to disabled people.
I think about those of us who have motor impairments or difficulties with speech might find this most useful, but I also think it’s great for people who live with severe anxiety and struggle to communicate with large companies or difficult calls. I realise there are a number of chat options on websites now which reduces the need to speak to an operator, but these are often inaccessible to blind people.
While all of this is a long way off, the Google Duplex software certainly makes this kind of communication much more like reality. And unlike Apple, there’s a chance those of us non-Android folk might get a chance to try it out without having to buy a new phone first.
2. Flip to Shhh
This could be the most silly feature of all but I kinda like it.
So, picture the scene. You’re at dinner with your wife (or husband, or both – we don’t judge here) and your phone just won’t stop notifying you of emails, texts and even incoming calls. Now you could just mute the phone, or turn on Do Not Disturb, but if you’re anything like me you will likely forget to turn it back off again and then wonder two days later why you’ve not been getting any calls, texts or emails! It can lead to some seriously frosty conversations with friends and your boss.
Google’s new Flip to Shhh feature does just that – flip the phone over and it’ll shut up. Love it!
1. Google Lens
This was the winning feature for me and it’s something that the mainstream world will love because it’s quirky, but blind people will love for its usefulness.
Google Lens is the technology that uses your smartphone camera to see the world around you. It uses A.I. technology which anyone who has used Seeing AI from Microsoft will know can be a real life changer.
Could this be better though? Well, I’m not sure but the demos look very interesting. With the Google Pixel 3, they’ve built Google Lens right into the camera itself, so now you can point your phone’s camera at something like a movie poster to get more information about it, or at a menu where there is a phone number, and the phone will translate that into a number you can instantly call. The possibilities are infinite on this, and for blind people using Talkback, I can only imagine the different and varying ways this kind of tech could be used. On Google’s webpage for Lens, there are various use cases, such as looking up opening times of buildings you are standing in front of and identifying items of clothing so you don’t need to try and type in what you saw to a search box. Ideal if you can’t see it to start with, eh?
This is nothing new. In fact, Lens was first shown off at Google I/O back in 2017. The feature has also been inside the camera apps of older Pixel devices as well as those from other manufacturers, including LG, Motorola, Xiaomi, Sony Mobile, HMD/Nokia, Transsion, TCL, OnePlus, BQ, and Asus. But Google touted Lens as one of the new Pixel 3 camera’s big features.
Also of note, Lens will be able to take some of its more common actions instantly in the camera, without the need for a data connection.
I look forward to trying it out on a Google phone soon, and hope that it comes to Apple’s iPhone soon.
It wasn’t the most exciting event I’ve seen this year primarily because the technology on offer this time around from Google just didn’t seem to offer anything amazing that would make me want to dive in, wallet open. However, these five features did stand out for me and I hope you found them useful.
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