Google I/O is, far and away, Google’s most important single event of the year, where CEO Sundar Pichai presents his grand vision for the company in the year to come.
So it was a little baffling, at first blush, that Google — a search company, which makes its money from search advertising — would spend so much time talking about Google Photos, its photo-sharing service, and camera-related apps in general.
At the same time, it makes perfect sense, in its own way. It’s the same old Google, adapted for a world where cameras rule over keyboards.
Way back in 2009, it launched an app called Google Goggles that let you snap a picture of, say, a book, and search for it online. On Wednesday the company brought the idea back with Google Lens, an evolved version of the concept. Google Lens will make its debut as a feature in Google Photos within the next few months, and come to the Google Assistant digital assistant by the end of the year.
And while Google Lens might just seem like a bunch of clever, questionably useful new tricks for your camera, it hints at so much more.
Because while Android is the most popular operating system in the world right now, new technologies like voice assistants, virtual reality, and even smart appliances threaten the dominance of the smartphone. What we’re seeing with Google Lens is the search giant grooming Assistant to be its failsafe in the event that the world moves on from the handheld computer.
Lens is debuting as we consumers are increasingly using cameras and our voices to interact with our devices. Where you used to type things out on a keyboard, you might now just snap a photo.
If you’ve ever taken a picture of a product label at the grocery store to help you remember it later, or sent a significant other a picture of a dropped mug so you didn’t have to explain it in writing, you’re already on the journey to this next big phase of computing.
With Google Lens system, you’ll be able to get more information on a band that’s playing a particular concert venue or watch their music videos by just taking a picture of the band’s name on the venue’s marquee. You’ll also be able to automatically connect your phone to a WiFi network by simply snapping a picture of the password.
Lens — and its underlying technology — could turn your photos into an incredibly valuable source of data for Google. Every photo you’ve taken, or will take, becomes something that Google can use to figure out where you were, who you were with, what brands you were wearing, what restaurant you were at, and so on.
It’s tempting to think of services like Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft Cortana as just voice assistants that reside on particular devices like smartphones or smart speakers. But they’re really just the most obvious parts of the huge, nebulous artificially intelligent systems that underly them, as the Verge points out. And we’re only just starting to figure out where and how those systems will fit into our lives and how we’ll interact with them.
You can interact with Google Assistant by typing commands on your smartphone keyboard, by talking to your Google Home smart speaker or by snapping a picture on your phone. You can choose the way you interact with the data in Google Assistant, the same way that every faucet in your home connects to the same water main.
When Google rolls Assistant out to cars, as is expected, it will be the same thing as what’s on your phone. When Assistant gets integrated — as it will — into fridges and lamps and thermostats and toasters, it will be the same Assistant. It’s will be available on all of them, delivering the data you need to the closest device available.
So if the smartphone dies, as Microsoft and Facebook expect it will, Google Assistant stands to actually outlive Android. It’s a system for processing your data and delivering useful results that doesn’t actually rely on any device. Whatever comes next, Google can have Assistant send answers through it, whether it has speakers, overlays images on the real world, or still uses an old-fashioned screen.
Google still has some things to work on when it comes to its intelligent assistant. Most notably, the vast majority of its revenue still comes from search advertising, but right now, there are no ads in Assistant. So Google has to figure out the business model if and as consumers move from its traditional text-based search page to searching with Assistant.
But if Google’s mission is to keep users loyal through these turbulent technological times, Assistant is right on target.