Google is, first and foremost, a software company–beyond search, there’s Chrome, Gmail, Google Drive, Maps, its AI projects, and many more. But this week, the company staged a “Made By Google” product announcement that marked a serious new foray into hardware, introducing a phone, VR headset, smart home device, Wi-Fi router, and new versions of its TV streaming device–all coming to stores in November. Software is still what ties it all together, though: each device makes use of Google’s Assistant, its AI-powered voice-control software that harnesses the power of the company’s machine learning to do whatever you ask.
The event, and the devices Google introduced, provided the best opportunity yet to see what kind of industrial design language Google is creating for itself. What does a gadget made by Google look like? How does it stack up against the sleek design of Apple, or Samsung?
Google has been precise about laying out its vision for software with Material Design, a design system that reimagines interfaces as more tactile and intuitive, corresponding to the paper and ink of the physical world. By using shadows and light to give user interfaces depth, Material Design aimed to make it immediately apparent how an app or service functioned.
In some ways, Google’s new hardware takes some of those ideas beyond the screen and into real life, with gadgets that are clearly designed to be user-friendly and intuitive. After all, there are few interfaces that are as natural as conversation–and Google has built this right into its new hardware through its smart Assistant. Here’s a look at everything we saw announced this week.
One of the most exciting pieces of new hardware was Google’s new Pixel phone, which comes in two sizes (a 5.6-inch Pixel and six-inch Pixel XL). With the highest quality smartphone camera on the market, unlimited storage for photos and videos, VR compatibility, and a seven-hour battery that charges in just 15 minutes, the Pixel might just give an iPhone a run for its money.
Google made that very clear in its pitch today, mocking the iPhone’s annoying “Not Enough Storage” message, priding the Pixel’s lack of an “unsightly camera bump,” and taking a jab at the absence of the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 (it’s the only thing it claims isn’t new about the Pixel). The Pixels are even sold with an adapter that makes it easier to switch from your old iPhone; you simply plug your old iPhone into your new phone to transfer data. The Pixel’s other key feature? Google Assistant is built right into it–and it looks like it works a lot better than Siri, which only just integrated with third-party apps.
The phone’s design appears to be extremely user-friendly and intuitive. The fingerprint scanner is located on the back of the phone, where your fingers would normally hold it. The round edges are supposed to be easy to grip. Best of all? Google claims it will take just 15 minutes to charge seven hours of battery life (the battery can last even longer on a full charge).
If you happen to pre-order Pixel, you’ll get a free Daydream View VR headset in the mail, too. Similar in scope to Google Cardboard, the mobile headset is meant to be used with any “Daydream-ready” smartphone (though it looks like that so far, that’s just the Pixel).
Daydream, which will go on sale in November for $79, doesn’t look like anything else out there. The headset was designed to address issues of comfort and user experience. In stark contrast to its competitors, it looks more like a pair of old-fashioned flying goggles, or even a snorkeling mask. It’s even been covered in fabric to make it soft and cushiony. “In designing it, we weren’t inspired by gadgets,” said Clay Bavor, who leads Google’s virtual reality team, during the presentation. “We looked at, what do people actually wear?” Apparently, the answer was yoga pants, since the fabric that covers it looks right out of a Lululemon catalog.
Daydream View is ready to play VR content from news organizations and VR developers, as well as games (the headset also comes with a controller that tucks neatly inside the headset when not in use). Google has partnered with Warner Bros. to take viewers inside J.K. Rowling’s new film Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them–the controller becomes the magic wand you always wanted. Daydream can also become a private cinema, playing television shows and movies within the comfort of your headset.
Could this be the VR headset that actually makes the medium popular? Google seems to be banking on the cushy factor–that Daydream is comfortable to wear, even if you still look ridiculous wearing it. Compared to the black rubbery plastic tech of the Oculus and or the HTC Vive, the Daydream really is a plush dream, something you might let your kid play around with. It comes with color options!
We knew this was coming, but Google’s voice-controlled, AI-powered smart home device is taking on the Amazon Echo in a big way.
Using Google Assistant, the $129 speaker–which goes on sale November 4–plays music, radio, and podcasts from Spotify, Pandora, Google Play, YouTube, and TuneIn. All you have to do is ask. It can answer questions that you might type into Google Search, from “What’s the weather today?” to “How do I remove a red wine stain?” or “Will my dog die if she eats chocolate?” It can translate into different languages. It will tell you about upcoming calendar appointments, set reminders, access flight information. It will alert you about the traffic on your way to work. You can ask it to play your favorite show on your Chromecast TV (Netflix will soon support voice-controlled commands via Google Home). Google Home also connects to smart devices like Nest and Philips Hue to control more aspects of your home with your voice, prefacing your requests with, “Okay, Google.”
Unlike the Echo, Google Home is designed to work with multiple other Home devices, so you could feasibly have one in every room; the sensitive microphones could detect which device you’re closest to, so there’s no confusion. Home is shaped like a pear with its top sliced off at an angle, with four lights in Google’s primary colors on the top that flicker as it responds to you–almost like the Home is talking. Home’s design echoes the ethos of Dieter Rams’s work for Braun, with a mostly white body highlighted by primary colors that are meant to be touched. From a distance, it almost resembles a decorative candle.
Google Home also features some actual buttons, in case you get tired of all that voice command. That includes a mute button to turn off the microphones–otherwise it’ll be listening to your every move, always, learning your preferences and getting better at predicting what you’re looking for the more you use it. If Home works as well as Google says it does, the future might just have arrived.
Overall, it’s a friendlier, brighter design language than the black plastic and blue LEDs of the Amazon Echo, or the heavy black headsets of Oculus or HTC Vive. These products are touchable, visually light, and soft–complete with bright, colorful wrappers so they match any home–a true alternative to more intimidating, hard-shelled hardware. For a company that has become ubiquitous in its user-friendly software, this design language appears to bring the same kind of intuitive functionality to its industrial design.
[All Photos: Google]