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Google’s new Daydream VR headset (Google)
Google’s new Daydream VR headset (Google)

Google unveils a new Pixel phone, VR headset Add to ...

On Tuesday Alphabet Inc. renewed its commitment to consumer hardware with the announcement of an array of new gadgets including a new smartphone that pairs with a virtual reality headset, as well as a variety of smart-home devices.

The focus of the event, livestreamed from San Francisco, was on the new Pixel phone, which is the first attempt by the company – better known for search engines and software – to design and build its own handset (with help from manufacturing partner HTC). The aluminum and glass slab comes in 5-inch and 5.5-inch variants, and features a hefty premium price tag that starts at about $899 in Canada. The widely rumoured launch effectively ends the company’s Nexus smartphone program, which began in 2010 and attempted to offer reference designs with mid-range affordability to the booming Android ecosystem.

Remarkably similar in design to the iPhone 6 and 7, the Pixel is slightly thicker, has a fingerprint sensor on the back, a highly rated 12.3 megapixel camera, no physical home button, but has such new features as a battery that can get seven hours of power off a 15-minute fast-charge.

Another much-anticipated device, the Google Home hub – a WiFi-connected and voice-activated speaker that is similar to Amazon’s Alexa smart-home assistant – was also confirmed, but will not be available in Canada until 2017 at the earliest.

Both new products highlight the company’s latest effort to weave its Google Assistant deeper into the lives of consumers. The voice-powered virtual-intelligence device leverages many of Google’s mobile and productivity applications in an effort to move beyond more passive digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa.

“Pixel is the first phone to have the Assistant integrated in a deep way, from the home button. Assistant can read your texts, and load, say, restaurant listings relevant to them,” says Mario Queiroz, vice-president for product management in Alphabet’s consumer hardware division. Formerly a leader on the Chromecast devices, one of Google’s hardware hits that has sold more than 30 million units, Mr. Queiroz is streamlining Alphabet’s once-fragmented devices portfolio, with the exception of Nest products that remain on separate development tracks.

“We see the Assistant as an evolution of what we’ve done in search. Today you go to Google and you enter a query and you’re typing it. The [voice-activated] Assistant interaction is a much more conversational one.” Mr. Queiroz describes one such conversational feature is a sort of daily brief, in which Assistant can recite a summary of upcoming calendar appointments, as well as traffic and weather conditions.

For now the Home hub only connects to one Google account – potentially inconvenient or awkward for couples and families – and will feature a limited menu of third-party apps focused on music and Google services. U.S. users without a pre-existing streaming audio account (like Spotify for Google Play Music) will be offered six free months of the new YouTube Music streaming service.

At least initially, there will be a limited role for third-party developers who have added to Amazon’s home assistant thousands of voice-controlled “skills” that interact with other smart devices or leverage web services. The Home hub will communicate with other Chromecast connected devices, opening up possibilities to speak aloud commands to watch videos or play music around the house. It also connects with third-party smarthome devices like Nest Thermostats or Philips Hue lights.

“We’re trying to do something where it’s not just a long laundry list of partners and apps that don’t get used by anybody,” Mr. Queiroz said.

For the time being, the new Pixel will also be the only phone that will work with Google’s new Daydream View virtual reality headset. The Daydream costs $99 in Canada, and adds a remote control and slick repackaging to the lighter-weight VR system Alphabet began testing with the Google Cardboard development kits.

Like Cardboard and Samsung’s competitor, the Gear VR, Daydream requires a compatible smartphone that functions as the device’s screen, unlike such VR competitors as Oculus, HTC Vive or Sony that build customized integrated headsets that connect with PCs or game consoles.

Google’s Chromecast streaming devices also gets an update to support 4K video as well as a new name, Ultra.

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