The “big reveal” at Google I/O is always the keynote. This year’s conference was unique for its low-key presentation. The three and a half hour marathon presentation didn’t include any new hardware announcements (unless you count the unlocked version of the Galaxy S4 running pure Android). Instead it was a tribute to Google’s rapidly growing portfolio of services. In another surprise, the last hour was Larry Page giving his perspective on just about everything, and answering an amazing number of questions thrown at him by the audience.
One of the most impressive announcements was the all-new Google Maps. Featuring a greatly simplified UI, the new Maps is designed to put more of the information you might want on your maps directly – without those annoying pushpins – while hiding information you don’t want.
I/O attendees received early invites and were invited to try it out during the conference. We used it to find some local coffee shops and eateries, with mixed results. The UI itself was very cool, but either the new servers were overloaded or there were still some glitches in the preview service, as directions and other features seemed slow or in some cases didn’t seem to be connected.
While the new Maps interface might have been of most interest to consumers, the new Android Studio demo was serious eye candy for developers. Featuring real-time previews of icons, as well as layouts on various devices, the IntelliJ-based developer tool makes me want to think of an app to build just so I can use it. Google is also building in templates and other generated code modules for connecting to its services, much like Microsoft has done over the years with Visual Studio. The result should be much more rapid adoption of new Google services by developers.
Lines are a way of life at Google I/O. You might think that paying nearly $1,000 (£650) and hammering your keyboard during the three minutes tickets are on sale would make you really special. While that’s certainly true, so are the 6,000 other attendees. This line for lunch was a little daunting as we came down the escalator to the lobby, but fortunately it faded quickly. Popular sessions were filled well before they started, so advance planning was definitely a must if you had a particular agenda in mind.
The Sandbox level was full of product and technology exhibits and demonstrations. The space above was dominated by the Google Plus indoor blimps. Some of the cooler tech on display included the Seaview SVII underwater Street View camera rig, and the Epson/Apx Labs “anti-Glass” headset. Almost all of the vendors there stayed busy throughout the conference – in contrast to last year where the Sandbox often seemed almost empty – so hopefully it was well worth their time to be part of the conference.
Google had environmental sensors all over the building – some five hundred of them. It seemed like they didn’t have any especially amazing use for the mass of data being gathered, but were more interested in the experiment as a prototype of using Google Cloud services as a backend for massive data collection efforts. The use of open source Arduino hardware built with the help of O’Reilly’s Data Sensing Lab made all of us wonder what has happened to the Android@Home effort that was big news at I/O two years ago.
As you would expect, Google Glass wearers were at the conference in abundance. Unlike in 2012 when most of the Glass units were mock-ups, this time there were hundreds of real ones being worn everywhere – including in the restrooms.
I quickly decided that propping my Glass up on my forehead when entering the restroom was in the best interests of all concerned.
The odd thing about wearing Glass for a few days is that you quickly forget that you have them on, so after a while it is surprising when people look at you funny or start mumbling under their breath. Fortunately San Francisco is probably one of the easiest places to wear Glass, as everyone we met on the street or in restaurants who commented on them thought they were really cool.
Glass does not currently have a volume setting, so I found it very difficult to hear phone calls when in any type of noisy environment. Ironically I found myself needing to put my Bluetooth earpiece in my left ear while wearing Glass on my right ear in order to have a conversation in many of the conference venues.
Arriving early on the first morning gave me the chance to be the first Glass wearer many of the convention centre workers had ever seen. The servers in the café pictured above were intrigued and asked quite a few great questions about them. All of them were quite upbeat and, like nearly everyone on the street who asked about Glass, wanted to know not just what they did, but when they might be available and what I thought they’d cost. So of course I took their picture with Glass. No one visibly freaked out about having them around, but of course I have no idea what they were thinking or muttering under their breath.
Party scenes like After Hours are ripe for Glass, although the tiny sensor makes images in low light settings like this one I snapped with Glass a little blurry and noisy – such pics are certainly good candidates for Google+’s new auto-enhancement features for photos. Of course these settings are also some of the ones that raise privacy concerns about Glass. Not everyone at a bar or party wants everything they’re doing and who they are doing it with to appear on the web – and with automatic facial recognition privacy concerns will only increase.
These robotic drink mixers were fun to watch, but I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be impressed that they could make a drink, or dismayed that these marvels of technology were about 50 times slower than a human bartender. As always, robots were big at After Hours. This year Maker Faire San Francisco started this morning – the very next day after Google I/O – so there were plenty in town to put on display.
This large robotic hand was controlled by an operator fitted with a hand-like set of controls. It was presumably designed as a demonstration of how robotic power could greatly enhance human capabilities with a semi-natural control interface. However, after watching the operator for a while, it didn’t seem like the robot hand exactly followed his motions – it was more like he was using his controls the way someone might a fancy joystick, and anticipating what the result of his actions would translate into. The hand could pick up fuel drums between its “thumb” and “forefinger” which was pretty cool, and crush them of course. As you can see in this photo, it could also make silly gestures.
All good things must come to an end, so by late evening only a few stragglers were left taking advantage of seats at the by-now closed exhibits to relax and no doubt catch up on email. With so many of the sessions live-streamed, and so much of the technical information otherwise available online, the value of conferences like I/O is increasingly found in the person-to-person contact with other attendees – especially when there aren’t any new hardware products that need to be experienced in person.