Google I/O 2021: Holograms in video chats, smarter AI bots and future workspaces

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Google chief Sundar Pichai on Tuesday offered a sneak peek into Project Starline, an experiment underway at the Mountain View, California based technology giant that seeks to bring a new dimension to video conferencing. The futuristic project proposes to deliver virtual chat booths which allow users to convert themselves into 3D hologram versions. 

“Several years ago, we kicked off a project called Project Starline to use technology to explore what’s possible. Using high-resolution cameras and custom-built depth sensors, it captures your shape and appearance from multiple perspectives, and then fuses them together to create an extremely detailed, real-time 3D model,” Pichai said in his keynote to kick off the 2021 Google I/O Developer Conference. 

The conference returns this year in a virtual format after being cancelled last year on account of the pandemic. 

Pichai said the company will share more on Project Starline in the months ahead. “We’ve spent thousands of hours testing it at our own offices, and the results are promising,” he said. It also plans to test the technology with enterprise partners, including those in the healthcare and media sectors, he added. 

Project Starline uses significant hardware, including cameras, sensors and microphones. “Project Starline is currently available in just a few of our offices and it relies on custom-built hardware and highly specialized equipment. We believe this is where person-to-person communication technology can and should go, and in time, our goal is to make this technology more affordable and accessible,” the company said in a separate blog post. 

Aside from holograms, the flagship developer conference came packed with a slew of announcements across the Google spectrum of products. The company claimed that its active Android users have now touched 3 billion, as opposed to rival Apple which claims a billion mobile users.   

Sneak peek into Android 12   

Google just released a beta version of Android 12 which most Pixel users (and partner devices such as Asus, OnePlus etc) can install and try out. Some of the new features includes better notifications, changing color palettes, along with more controls for privacy and easier connectivity between Chromebooks and Android TVs.  

Some of the privacy controls includes more information on how cookies are utilized, how apps export data and for what services and activities that are being utilized.   

If you do decide to install Android 12, a word of caution, to return to Android 11 you will be required to factory reset your device, which means in all probability a chance for data loss. The update is expected to be released to the public in the August-September period.   

Advanced AI based search with more information accountability   

Amid rising cases of misinformation, the keynote at the developer’s conference revealed that for every Google result, a new feature titled “about this result” will appear under a website. This will include information about the website, how other relevant sites describe it and also a link to the Wikipedia page, in an attempt to ensure that users can take an informed decision about the content that they read.   

The company decided to have this feature after it noticed a spike for search terms that begin with “Is it true that...”.   

In terms of the search itself, Google unveiled a new search model called as the Multitask Unified Model (MUM), which can handle complex queries. MUM will be able to generate and understand language and has been trained in over 75 different languages. The model will also be able to understand information across text and images, with Google saying that these will gradually move towards video and audio.   

“We’ve already started internal pilots with MUM and are excited about its potential for improving Google products,” Google said in a blog post. 

Google, Samsung and Fitbit come together   

In a big announcement for the wearables segment, Google and Samsung have joined hands to redesign Google’s operating system for watches, which will also be the OS for Samsung’s future watches. Additionally, consumer fitness electronics giant Fitbit, owned by Google, is also developing its own range of smart watches.  Other features include offline modes for YouTube Music, Spotify and the ability to use maps directly on the watch without being connected to a smartphone.   

While the Fitbit and Google mashup was expected, the coming together of Google, Samsung and Fitbit into one OS will leave most technology enthusiasts drooling and it will be interesting to see what tricks Apple Watch will bring to the table to counter this.  

Additionally, the two giants are also coming together to create chipsets for smartwatches and fitness sensors. 

The OS and the watches are expected to be launched sometime post September, starting with Samsung watches. 

Moving closer to more human-like AI bots    

“LaMDA, our latest research breakthrough, adds pieces to one of the most tantalizing sections of that puzzle: conversation,” Eli Collins, vice president, product management at Google, said in a blog post.   

Most conversations with AI chatbots today tend to follow narrow and pre-defined paths. Google’s ‘Language Model for Dialogue Applications’ aims to change that by giving the bot the ability to engage in free-flowing conversations through multiple topics.   

“During its training, it picked up on several of the nuances that distinguish open-ended conversation from other forms of language,” the company said.  

Other critical factors that the AI will look into are whether responses are insightful, unexpected or witty, along with the factuality of information. Google also said that LaMDA will stick to its seven AI principles, some of which are being accountable to people, avoid unfair bias, being socially beneficial and be built for safety. 

Solutions for WFH collaboration   

It has been more than 15 years since the launch of Google Docs. Now the company has launched what it calls the ‘smart canvas’ -- a solution within Google Workspace. For example, if you @ a person, the canvas will show additional information such as the person’s location, job title and contact information.  The solution, which has already been rolled out, will require the user to just click on @ to point towards not only people, but meetings and files too. Other cool features include checklists and table templates which will help take feedback from users as well as to vote on topics. 

Tags: Sundar Pichai | Google | Google IO | Project Starline | WFH | conversational AI