Google I/O: Search giant's second try at computer glasses translate conversations in real time

Selling more hardware could help Google increase profit by keeping users in its network of technology. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

MOUNTAIN VIEW (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The science fiction is harder to see in Google's second try at glasses with a built-in computer.

A decade after the debut of Google Glass, a nubby, sci-fi-looking pair of specs that filmed what wearers saw but raised concerns about privacy and received low marks for design, the Alphabet unit on Wednesday (May 11) previewed a yet-unnamed pair of standard-looking glasses that display translations of conversations in real time and showed no hint of a camera.

The new augmented-reality pair of glasses was just one of several longer-term products Google unveiled at its annual Google I/O developer conference aimed at bridging the real world and the company's digital universe of search, Maps and other services using the latest advances in artificial intelligence.

"What we're working on is technology that enables us to break down language barriers, taking years of research in Google Translate and bringing that to glasses," said Mr Eddie Chung, a director of product management at Google, calling the capability "subtitles for the world".

Selling more hardware could help Google increase profit by keeping users in its network of technology, where it does not have to split ad sales with device makers such as Apple and Samsung Electronics that help distribute its services.

Google also teased a tablet to be launched in 2023 and a smartwatch that will go on sale late this year, as it unveils a strategy to offer a group of products comparable to Apple.

But Google's hardware business remains small, with its global market share in smartphones, for instance, under 1 per cent, according to researcher IDC. Recently launched challengers in search along with ongoing anti-trust investigations across the world into Google's dominance in mobile software and other areas threaten to limit the company's ability to gain steam in new ventures.

Alphabet shares fell 0.7 per cent on Wednesday.

The reveal of the new glasses reflect the company's growing caution amid greater scrutiny on Big Tech. When Google Glass was demonstrated at I/O in 2012, skydivers used it to live stream a jump onto a San Francisco building, with the company getting special air clearance for the stunt.

This time around, Google showed only a video of its prototype, which displayed translations for conversations involving English, Mandarin, Spanish and American Sign Language.

It did not specify a release date or immediately confirm that the device lacked a camera.

Separate to the gadget, Google earlier demonstrated a feature that eventually would let users take video of store shelves with wine bottles and ask the search app to perform functions like automatically identify options from Black-owned wineries.

Remote video URL

Similarly, users later this year will be able to snap a photo of a product and locate nearby stores where it is available.

Also later this year, Maps will launch an immersive view for some big cities that fuses Street View and aerial images "to create a rich, digital model of the world", Google said.

First tablet in years

The tablet reverses Google's decision three years ago to abandon making its own after poor sales. It shipped just 500,000 of those units, according to IDC. Google had stopped designing new tablets in 2019 to focus on laptops.

The new tablet follows increased user interest and was announced early to inform buyers considering alternatives, Mr Rick Osterloh, Google senior vice-president for devices and services, told reporters.

The company did not disclose pricing, specific release details or unique capabilities, but Mr Osterloh said its size would be on the larger side. Apple sells tablets from about 7-inches to 13-inches in size, while Samsung makes a large 15-inch device.

Pixel Watch

He added that the Pixel Watch will attract different users than devices from Google's Fitbit, which is associated with health and fitness and was acquired last year for US$2.1 billion (S$2.93 billion).

Unlike other smartwatches running on Wear OS, Google's Pixel Watch will not be compatible with Apple's iPhones.

The Pixel Watch, in contrast with the Apple Watch, has a circular screen, mimicking most classic wristwatches. The device was primarily developed by Fitbit, which Google acquired in January 2021, and includes Fitbit-based health tracking integration.

Google's watch will run its Wear OS software and support tasks like tap-to-pay, finding directions in Google Maps and receiving notifications. It will also be controlled by Google's voice assistant and a tactile crown on the side - similar to the Apple Watch with digital assistant Siri and its Digital Crown.

Like Apple, Google will also offer a version with 4G cellular connectivity.

The smartwatch market is fairly saturated, with Apple owning about 30 per cent of sales. Samsung Electronics holds 10 per cent, while the rest of the market is made up of Fitbit, Garmin and smaller China-based players like Huawei Technologies, according to Counterpoint Research.

Google's Pixel Watch will be released in the fall, but the company did not provide information about the cost to consumers. In an interview, Google's Mr Osterloh said it would be a "premium-priced" device. Apple's stainless steel Apple Watch starts at US$749 and the company is planning new watches later this year.

New phones, earbuds

While Google's hardware business has yet to become a major revenue contributor since the first Pixel phone launched in 2016, the company has continued to push out new phones and other devices annually.

Google called last year's Pixel 6 its most successful device to date, far outselling previous generations of the phone. The company does not disclose hardware revenue. Google's "other revenue", which includes hardware, app store sales and video subscriptions, generated more than US$28 billion last year.

Mr Osterloh also previewed the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, the company's next high-end smartphones planned for release in the fall. The devices will have an updated design for the back camera system and a faster processor. The company did not disclose pricing.

Coming sooner will be two products: the Pixel 6a and the Pixel Buds Pro. The Pixel 6a is a lower-cost version of last year's Pixel 6, priced at US$449 instead of US$599. It has cheaper materials like aluminium edges, a smaller, 6.1-inch screen, lesser 12 megapixel cameras, but the same custom Tensor processor inside.

The new earbuds rival Apple's AirPods Pro and Samsung's Galaxy Buds Pro. Like with rivals, the main new feature is noise-cancellation, a transparency mode to hear outside noise and a stronger ability to limit background noise during calls. The earbuds also have seven hours of battery life with noise-cancellation turned on.

Among other announcements, a relaunched Google Wallet app will virtually store drivers licenses in some areas of the United States later this year, mirroring a feature Apple debuted for Arizona on its iPhones in March.

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