Google I/O: Expect A.I., virtual reality

While Android is a constant, Google may focus on cars, digital assistants and virtual reality this week

For a conference that has been used to advance Android and Chrome, and introduce Google Glass with users parachuting from a plane, people are expecting to hear about virtual reality and artificial intelligence at this week's Google I/O conference.

"This year's focus will be virtual reality, no doubt," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. "I believe Google wants to be a leader in virtual reality and, in this marketplace where there are no leaders yet, I think they will try and secure their place in the front of the line."

Kagan said Google may even roll out its own early- generation virtual reality device at I/O, the company's annual developer conference, which generally draws more than 6,000 attendees.

The conference is being held from Wednesday through Friday in Mountain View, Calif., the same city where Google is headquartered.

One of the big differences for this year's conference is that it's not at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Shoreline Amphitheater Shoreline Amphitheater

The Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, Calif., where this year's Google I/O conference will be held.

Google has not given a reason for the change of venue, to the Shoreline Amphitheatre, though many anticipate that the company is looking to use the outdoor fairplex to display advances in its work on autonomous cars, robotics or drones.

"I expect it means Google will be showing off its skills at defining and powering autonomous vehicles -- not just cars but drones and devices of all sorts," said Jack Gold, an analyst with J.Gold Associates. "Cars seem to be getting the headlines but there are a number of autonomous things that Google wants to power."

Gold added that those smart devices could range from autonomous garbage trucks to systems that find an open parking space for your car and autonomous wheelchairs for people with disabilities.

"Think of this as the same kind of race we went through in trying to power smartphones," he said. "Google won big there against the competition, and it is trying to position itself as the power inside the next wave of autonomous vehicles and robotic gadgets, as well."

Scott Strawn, an analyst with IDC, said he thinks Google is likely to show off driverless cars.

Google had pushed hard into robotics back in 2013, scooping up Boston Dynamics, the maker of the Atlas humanoid robot and the Big Dog, along with a string of other robotics companies. When reports hit that Google is trying to unload Boston Dynamics, it left many observers wondering how committed the company still is to developing its own robotics technology.

"After Andy Rubin [former head of Google's robotics division] left, it isn't clear how much progress they've made with their robotics program," Strawn said. "But their cars have been in the media quite a bit, which might suggest some kind of unveiling this week."

And with Google's increasing interest in autonomous vehicles and virtual reality, there's a natural push for the company to invest heavily in artificial intelligence and machine learning to support those efforts.

Many industry analysts are expecting to hear more about that this week.

"What's most important to me are the efforts Google has around cognitive computing and artificial intelligence," said Gold. "We are seeing major pushes by IBM, with Watson, and Microsoft and others. I'd really like to see how Google plans to counter these efforts."

He added that he's interested to see if Google will talk about or show off an advance to Apple's Siri, or Amazon's Echo.

Strawn, too, thinks Google might focus on a smart personal assistant.

"Google is working hard to create an interactive digital assistant," said Strawn. "If you've ever seen the movie Her, that would give you a good idea of the type of interaction they are trying to create. Mostly it would be to help organize people's lives, kind of like an ever-present assistant that you can have a conversation with."

Of course, it wouldn't be Google I/O without talk of Android and Chrome but most aren't expecting huge news out of those areas this week.

"Google always has some type of updates that will be revealed about the next version of Android, even though this year some Android N features have been announced already," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner. "There have been rumors for many years that Android and Chrome OS will be merged or will interoperate to some degree. And while some developers want this merging to happen sooner than later, Google may only look at some interoperability versus a more substantial merging."

Google's cloud efforts also are likely to get some attention. And Project Tango, a technology that enables mobile devices to be aware of their position in the world, is expected to be updated during the conference.

"I believe [Project Tango] was demonstrated at last year's conference, so I expect to see some refinements and further packaging of this intriguing idea," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis. "Clearly, mobile devices are not just ubiquitous but also heterogeneous in shape, size and purpose. If Google can deliver a set of APIs that engage those devices directly with the physical world around them and with their users, we could be in for something much more momentous than even virtual reality."

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