5 Cool Things Google Announced Today

Photo: Courtesy Google.
Google just showed off all the new things it’s working on for Android, the web, your wrist, and your face — and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t excited. In particular, Google is making some changes to your smartphone that will make it way smarter and more useful.

At the keynote for its annual developer conference Google I/O, execs and product managers (a refreshingly diverse mix of nationalities, men, and women) stepped onstage to first talk about the newest version of Android before diving into other areas of the Google universe, like Android Wear and Google’s virtual reality ambitions.

We rounded up the five most important pieces of information you should know from today’s announcements. But, you should be warned: It may be enough to make you want to turn to the Android side.

Android M Smooths Out The Smartphone Experience
The main improvements to Android M, the next version of Android, center around making the experience buttery smooth and giving users greater control over their phone experience. To start, Google is changing the way app permissions are handled. Right now when you download a new app, it’ll first ask you for access to the camera, or to your location, or to your contacts, for example. Later on, you may forget you granted the app those permissions and may want to change them — and it’s a pain. With Android M, the app asks for permission to other areas of your phone the first time you access a feature that requires it (like access to the mic during the first time you enter a search query by voice). In the app’s settings, you can clearly see, modify, or revoke existing permissions for an app. You can also check out a particular type of permission, like location access, and view all the apps that have access to that data and adjust those permissions as needed. This is huge for helping you gain better control over what private information you share to third parties.

Android M also makes mobile payments easier with greater support for Android Pay and standardized fingerprint support for Android Pay transactions (basically, Google just implemented Apple Pay and Touch ID).

Google also introduced a new feature called Doze that helps you save on battery life. Doze uses motion detection to know if a device is left unattended for a long period of time and switches it into a deeper sleep mode if it doesn't sense movement. Apparently, this can double the battery life of a tablet like the Nexus 9.

Android Wear Makes The Smartwatch Truly Glanceable
One of the big problems with smartwatches now is that while they’re supposed to make information and notifications glanceable and easy to read, they don’t quite achieve that goal. A feature called “Always On Apps” changes that. Normally, if you pulled up Google Maps or a grocery list, the screen on an Android Wear watch would eventually go dark, and you’d need to keep tapping it to keep the image on your wrist. With this new feature, the watch basically takes a low power, black and white screen grab of what’s on the screen so you can reference it each time you look at your wrist, without needing to open the app.

Google also added wrist gestures, so when your hands are full, you can scroll through an onscreen list by simply flicking your wrist up or down. The next version of Android Wear also includes emoji recognition: Draw an emoji onscreen and the watch takes your barely discernible scribble of a cocktail glass, deciphers it, and pulls up the martini glass and other similar emoji for you to choose from and send to friends.
Google Now Gets More Context Aware
Google Now is one of the hallmark experiences of an Android device. Part virtual assistant, part digital planner, and part information source, Google Now surfaces “cards” of information as you need them, things like the latest score and schedule of your favorite sports team, or the ETA to your office or next meeting. The newest iteration of Google Now will be even better because it’s gaining more contextual awareness. That is, the information you’re looking for when you’re in an airport are vastly different than what’s important when you’re looking up something on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

A feature called “Now On Tap,” coming with the release of Android M, takes into account where you are and what you’re doing on your phone to better serve up information. If you’re listening to an artist like Skrillex, you can ask Google Now “What’s his real name?” and Google Now knows you’re talking about Skrillex, since that’s what you’re listening to. Or, say your roommate messages you to remember to grab TP at the store — Google Now automatically creates a smart reminder for that task so you won’t forget. You can also tap the name of someone referenced in an article to pull up more detailed information on that person.

You access Google Now by tapping and holding the home button on an Android phone.

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Google Photos Automatically Organizes & Stores ALL Your Photos (For Free!)
Google+ has always been a great way to store and edit photos, but the fact that it’s called (and rolled into) Google+ is, well, a turn-off. So Google’s taken its photo storage smarts, and then some, and rolled it into a new app: Google Photos. Google Photos is available today on iOS, Android, and the web. The app stores an unlimited amount of your photos (maintaining resolution up to 16 MP for photos and 1080p for videos) for free.

Google Photos includes a variety of editing features, so you can adjust color and lighting in an image, but you can also quickly create collages, movies with soundtracks, and animations. A swipe to the left opens the Assistant view, which compiles these sort of things automatically.

Google lets you share photos with a link — the recipient doesn’t need the app or a login to view them. And, they can save the images to their own library with a tap.

Akin to the recent changes Yahoo made to Flickr, Google also made photo organization and search easier. The app organizes images by people, places and things, rather than just through time. So with this, you could see photos of a particular person, like your daughter or your partner, organized over time.

While the app is free, we have to point out, like anything that has a free price tag, you’re giving something up: In this case, your data and your images to add to Google’s vast understanding of the world and how its algorithms analyze images.

Google Cardboard Makes Classroom Field Trips Virtual
The days of Google Glass are dead (at least for the time being). For now, Google’s got its forward-looking efforts on its super cheap virtual reality platform, Google Cardboard, which it first introduced at I/O last year. Cardboard is a piece of cardboard and a pair of lenses that you fold up and slide your phone into and, with one of the hundreds of compatible Cardboard apps, lets you get an inexpensive virtual reality experience. You look absolutely ridiculous holding the little cardboard box up to your face, but then again, no virtual reality platform has managed to figure out how to look non-dorky just yet.

Now, Google Cardboard is bigger, to accommodate smartphones up to six inches in size, and, more importantly, Google is making it available to educators. Called Expeditions, a teacher gets a tablet, while her students each get a Cardboard viewer with a smartphone inside. The teacher orchestrates the experience, taking them to Verona, Italy, during a section on Romeo & Juliet, for example, or to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to explore sea life. The students all see the same thing at the same time, in an immersive 3D experience. Cardboard, originally only available for Android, is now available for iOS and Android devices.

Honorable Mention: Google's Getting Into The Smart Home
Google also announced that it is getting into the Internet of Things with a platform called Project Brillo. It's yet another way for smart devices to talk to one another in your home (in addition to existing options like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi-based HomeKit, from Apple, or Alljoyn). With a developer preview arriving late this year, we won't start seeing any Android-based smart home devices for a while yet.
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