It’s once again time to learn about all the fun things Google’s planning for the next year. Google I/O 2016, which starts on May 18th, will be the company’s first developer conference under Alphabet, and this time around Android likely won’t be the focus of the big announcements—at least not the Android on your smartphone.
More on what that means below.
Yes, Android will still be there
Although the Android team is rumored to be doing something “completely different” when it comes to Google I/O, the company will still make mention of its most popular software product. But unlike years past, Google has already given us a look at Android N—an extensive one actually.
That doesn’t mean Android won’t have more ideas worth bringing up. Google released the Android N (Nutella?) developer preview back in March and has already released one update featuring new emojis and the new gaming-heavy Vulcan API. Google has plans for three more preview updates before Android N’s stable release in September. That gives Google plenty to talk about. Personally, we’re still looking for that new messenger to replace Hangouts.
Then there’s Android’s non-smartphone products, including Android TV and Android Wear, which could certainly use some love and attention. Android TV is better software than the original Google TV, but it’s basically the same as what you can get from any set-top box. Meanwhile, Google’s big boss for Android Wear has lofty plans for the platform in the distant future, but right now, it’s still very limited. Some hope that Google will integrate Project Soli, its radar-based project for mapping the movement of human hands, into Android Wear, but that’s unlikely—at least for this year’s Google I/O.
Google’s Plans For VR Beyond Cardboard
Cardboard, Google’s quirky VR project that launched at Google I/O in 2014, has helped get VR into the hands of millions. But now that high-quality headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are out in the wild, Google could be gearing up for something much bigger than just its cutesy cardboard-based experiment.
Clay Bavor, the big brain behind Google’s VR efforts, has said for more than a year, that Google’s virtual reality ambitions don’t stop at just Google Cardboard. However, those comments, as well as rumors from the Wall Street Journal about an ‘Android for VR’ operating system, went unmentioned during Google I/O last year.
This is Google: they don’t do small-scale things. All Bavor will say is that Cardboard’s nowhere near the last virtual reality project you’ll see from Google. Then he leans over, conspiratorially, and whispers again. “I would really like photorealistic virtual reality to exist.”
And here’s another teaser from Popular Science:
I think that if you’re more intentional in designing phones, designing software and go beyond Cardboard you can do something pretty magical that is even higher quality, higher performance and so on. But while maintaining many of the attributes that make Cardboard so powerful and appealing.
Add in that Google has several VR events planned for Google I/O, including one called “VR at Google” with the description “what we have built, what we have learned, and where we are headed,” and we’re damn sure that VR is on the menu.
[Update] Rumors from @peterrojas asserts that Android VR will be a better Gear VR, but not nearly as powerful as the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, meaning it won’t be tethered to a separate PC for better performance. Instead, it will be a standalone headset with no extra computing power needed.
[Update 2] A new rumor, reported by Android Police, basically confirms that VR will be at I/O. Android VR recently appeared in code in the Google Play Store developer console.
[Updated 3] Chinese company Xiaomi, who has a limited presence in the US, has been cryptically tweeting that it’ll be involved in Google I/O.
What that means exactly is anyone’s guess. A second tweet showing gaming pad input points to maybe being involved in Google’s VR efforts, or possibly a component to the rumor that Google Play is finally coming to China. Some even think it might be a TV box of some sort. Who knows!?
Chrome + Android: Together at last
One of the more interesting and long-standing rumors about Google may finally come to fruition—Chrome OS and Android will finally collide. A rumor from Ars Technica in April showed a Google dialog box saying that the full Play store was now available on Chrome OS. If this turns out to be true, it could transform a good desktop operating system into a great one. Further down the road, Google might reveal new software meant to run across every device, meaning we’d also see a desktop version of Android combined with Chrome.
Either would make for better Android tablets. At the very least, Google won’t waste the opportunity to brag that Chrome OS is slowly conquering every classroom in the US.
YouTube embraces live TV streaming
This one could be somewhat far-fetched compared to other rumors we’ve listed, only because YouTube likes to announce its stuff separately from Google, as the company did with YouTube Red and YouTube Music. But reports earlier this month said that YouTube is planning a live TV service called “Unplugged,” set to debut in 2017.
If true, YouTube might consider launching the plans at I/O in response to Hulu’s recent news that it’s also planning a live TV service that will likely include Disney Channel, ESPN, and Fox News. If Google wants to get channels on board and building a specific experience for YouTube’s platform, it would need to announce it sooner rather than later.
Driverless cars may finally be ready for the spotlight
Google already announced some big news leading up to Google I/O in its high-profile partnership with Chrysler and forming a coalition advocating for driverless cars. In an NBC interview, Astro Teller, the head of Google X, said that the project is “close to graduating from X.” Maybe that means we’ll actually get a glimpse of the minivan project Google has been working on.
It’s possible that Google has another partnership announcement or may possibly launch a pilot program. It’s worth mentioning that regulation for these cars hasn’t caught up with the tech, so don’t expect any huge announcements— though the government does recognize autonomous cars as legal drivers now. It’s a start.
And lots and lots of other stuff
Google has its hands in so many different projects in various stages of ideation, delay, and obscurity, that it is hard to predict with 100 percent certainty what Google might trot out onto the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. But here are a few stray projects that might see some spotlight:
Project Tango: Google’s augmented reality tech finally found a hardware home with Lenovo. With the phone launching this summer, we could see some live demos or a mention on price and availability. However, Lenovo/Motorola are rumored to be holding an event in June, so it may get pushed back until then.
[Update] Tango may play a bigger role at I/O beyond hardware announcements. A report from Bloomberg suggests Google may outline its plan to use Tango technology to map interiors, much like Google Maps created digital cartography of the outside world. We may also hear how Tango will cross-pollinate with Google’s ideas for VR.
Google’s Echo: The Information reported earlier this year about Google’s interest in making a device similar to Amazon’s Echo, codenamed “Chirp.” Although possible, it’s likely too early for this guy to be ready for the big time.
[Update] According to The New York Times, Google will be showing off its Amazon Echo competitor at Google I/O, and it will supposedly be named Google Home. Although Google will be showing off the little home speaker tomorrow, it likely won’t ship to users until the fall.
Project Ara: The often-delayed modular smartphone project from Google’s ATAP outfit could use a bit of good news. Google’s re-aligned its hardware effort by putting ex-Motorola president Rick Osterloh at the helm. Maybe it’s also provided the Ara team some much-needed direction.
[Update] This week Google announced the first Waze carpool project in the US, a project previously undergoing tests in Israel. The timing seems intentional with Google I/O this week in San Francisco, where Google is beginning its US service. So Waze may very likely be a topic of conversation during tomorrow’s keynote.
[Update] Another new addition this week is Spaces, a new app from Google that’s basically another way for people to share information. Mostly it’s a glorified chatroom where you can create small communities that cultivate web knowledge into a single location that others can comment on. Google says it’ll be experimenting with the app at Google I/O, so we might here more about it then.
M1/S1: There have also been leaks regarding two new Nexus devices, codenamed M1 (Marlin) and S1 (Sailfish), which are both reportedly being made by HTC. Although I’d love to see Nexus devices at I/O, the leaks are still in the name phase and Google usually doesn’t launch new phones until the fall. It’s unlikely we’ll see these new phones at Google I/O 2016.
Bots: A new report from The Information says Google will be following Microsoft and Facebook’s lead and announce its own take on the current bot sensation that sweeping Silicon Valley. Whether these bots will suck as much as Messenger’s bots remains to be seen.
Like I said, Google has so many different projects going—which the company publicly admitted could be a problem—that it’s hard to say what will get some stage time. Another fly in the ointment is that this will be the first Google I/O with Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in the mix, so we may not hear about projects at Verily, Calico, or any other Alphabet subsidiary at all! Who knows!
Mysteries are what make life worth living. The fun begins Wednesday, May 18th at 1pm ET.