Anker Mars II projector promises solid summer fun

Anker, a popular if battery and cable company, recently announced the Mars II projector under its Nebula brand. The company, which primarily sells via Amazon, is expanding out of batteries and cables and is now creating audio and other portable AV gear. This compact, battery-powered DLP projector is their latest creation and it has found a place of honor at our family barbecues.

The projector is actually an Android 7.1 device stuffed into a case about as big as a Bluetooth speaker. A physical lens cap slides down and turns on the system and you control everything from he included remote or the buttons on the top of the device. You can also download an app that mimics a mouse and keyboard for choosing videos and information entry. It projects at a maximum of 300 lumens and projects at 720p. You can also connect an HDMI device like a game console or stick in a USB drive full of videos to view on the fly.

Again, the real benefit here is the ability to stream from various apps. I have YouTube, Netflix, Plex, and other apps installed and you can install almost any other Android app you can imagine. It has speakers built in and you can cast to it via Miracast but you cannot insert a Chromecast.

If all you want to do is throw up a little Santa Clarita Diet or Ice Age on a sheet in the back yard, this thing is perfect. Because the brightness is fairly low you need solid twilight or a partially dark room to get a good picture. However, the picture is good enough and it would also make a great presentation device for a closed, dark conference room. Because of its small size and battery life – four hours on a charge – it makes for a great alternative to a full-sized projector or even a standard TV.

At $539 the Mars II is priced on par with other 720p projectors. The primary use case – connecting a computer or console via HDMI – works quite well but streaming user experience is a bit of a mixed bag. Because Anker didn’t modify the Android installation much further than adding a few default apps, some apps require a mouse to use and others can be controlled via the arrow keys on the remote or body of the device. This means that some apps – like Plex, for example – let you pick a video via the arrow keys but require you to press the “mouse” button to begin simulating a mouse cursor on the screen. It’s a bit frustrating, especially in poor lighting conditions.

One of the interesting features is the automatic focus system. Instead of fiddling with a knob or slider, you simply point this at a surface and the system projects a bullseye focus ring until the picture is in focus. The focus changes any time you move the device and sometimes it gets caught up if the screen or projector are moving. However in most cases it works perfectly fine.

Like most portable projectors you aren’t buying the Mars II to watch 4K video in 5.1 surround sound. You buy it to offer an alternative to sitting on the couch and watching a movie. That means this is great for on-the-road business presentations, campouts, outdoor movie viewing, and sleepovers. It is cheap and portable enough to be almost disposable and it’s not as heavy and hot as other, larger devices. In short, it can go anywhere, show anything, and works really well. Anker also makes the Mars, a more expensive 1080p device, but this one works just fine for about $400 less – a big drop in just about a year of brisk sales. It’s nice to see a good, low-cost manufacturer dabble in the world of complex consumer electronics and come up with a product that is truly useful and fun.

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Google Play now makes it easier to manage your subscriptions

Mobile app subscriptions are a big business, but consumers sometimes hesitate to sign up because pausing and cancelling existing subscriptions hasn’t been as easy as opting in. Google is now addressing those concerns with the official launch of its subscription center for Android users. The new feature centralizes all your Google Play subscriptions, and offers a way for you to find others you might like to try.

The feature was first introduced at Google’s I/O developer conference in May, and recently rolled out to Android users, the company says. However, Google hadn’t formally announced its arrival until today.

Access to the subscriptions center only takes one tap – the link is directly available from the “hamburger” menu in the Play Store app.

Apple’s page for subscription management, by comparison, is far more tucked away.

On iOS, you have to tap on your profile icon in the App Store app, then tap on your name. This already seem unintuitive – especially considering that a link to “Purchases” is on this Account screen. Why wouldn’t Subscriptions be here, too? But instead, you have to go to the next screen, then scroll down to near the bottom to find “Subscriptions” and tap that. To turn any individual subscription off, you have to go to its own page, scroll to the bottom and tap “Cancel.”

This process should be more streamlined for iOS users.

In Google Play’s Subscriptions center, you can view all your existing subscriptions, cancel them, renew them, or even restore those you had previously cancelled – perfect for turning HBO NOW back on when “Game of Thrones” returns, for example.

You can also manage and update your payment methods, and set up a backup method.

Making it just as easy for consumers to get out of their subscriptions as it is to sign up is a good business practice, and could boost subscription sign-ups overall, which benefits developers. When consumers aren’t afraid they’ll forget or not be able to find the cancellation options later on, they’re more likely to give subscriptions a try.

In addition, developers can now create deep links to their subscriptions which they can distribute across the web, email, and social media. This makes it easier to direct people to their app’s subscription management page directly. When users cancel, developers can also trigger a survey to find out why – and possibly tweak their product offerings a result of this user feedback.

There’s also a new subscription discovery section that will help Android users find subscription-based apps through both curated and localized collections, Google notes.

These additional features, along with a good handful of subscription management tools for developers, were all previously announced at I/O but weren’t in their final state at the time. Google had cautioned that it may tweak the look-and-feel of the product between the developer event and the public launch, but it looks the same as what was shown before – right down to the demo subscription apps.

Subscriptions are rapidly becoming a top way for developers to generate revenue for their applications. Google says subscribers are growing at more than 80 percent year-over-year. Sensor Tower also reported that app revenue grew 35 percent to $60 billion in 2017, in part thanks to the growth in subscriptions.

Android P Beta 2 brings updated system images and 157 new emojis

A month after releasing the first beta version of Android P at I/O (and right in the middle of Apple’s own developers conference), Google has just released Beta 2 of its upcoming mobile operating system. The update is available to users enrolled in Google’s developer program, who have access to a Pixel device. Those who’ve already download Beta 1 will get the new version automatically.

The latest build features new system images and tools designed to help developers create apps for the upcoming version of the mobile operating system. Adaptive Battery is on-board here, leveraging DeepMind to decide which apps should get the most system resources. App Actions helps developers make their apps more prominent in places like Search, the Google Assistant and the Google Launcher, while Slices provides a way to offer elements of an app without having to open it up. 

Also of note is the addition of 157 new emojis. The list includes two gender neutral emojis, offering awn additional options for the Family and Couple With Heart emojis, joinging last year’s addition of a gender-neutral Adult emoji.

There’s a Red Hair and Superhero emoji, both of which are available in two genders and five skin tones, a bagel with cream cheese, a llama and a lobster. Sounds like a fun crew.

A handful of existing emojis have also gotten a facelift here, including Bacon, Turtle, Cricket and Salad, which drops the egg to go full-on vegan. Google notes that the new emojis may be further updated prior to Android P’s final release.

More information on the updates for devs can be found here. 

Apple got even tougher on ad trackers at WWDC

Apple unveiled a handful of pro-privacy enhancements for its Safari web browser at its annual developer event yesterday, building on an ad tracker blocker it announced at WWDC a year ago.

The feature — which Apple dubbed ‘Intelligent Tracking Prevention’ (IPT) — places restrictions on cookies based on how frequently a user interacts with the website that dropped them. After 30 days of a site not being visited Safari purges the cookies entirely.

Since debuting IPT a major data misuse scandal has engulfed Facebook, and consumer awareness about how social platforms and data brokers track them around the web and erode their privacy by building detailed profiles to target them with ads has likely never been higher.

Apple was ahead of the pack on this issue and is now nicely positioned to surf a rising wave of concern about how web infrastructure watches what users are doing by getting even tougher on trackers.

Cupertino’s business model also of course aligns with privacy, given the company’s main money spinner is device sales. And features intended to help safeguard users’ data remain one of the clearest and most compelling points of differentiation vs rival devices running Google’s Android OS, for example.

“Safari works really hard to protect your privacy and this year it’s working even harder,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering during yesterday’s keynote.

He then took direct aim at social media giant Facebook — highlighting how social plugins such as Like buttons, and comment fields which use a Facebook login, form a core part of the tracking infrastructure that follows people as they browse across the web.

In April US lawmakers also closely questioned Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the information the company gleans on users via their offsite web browsing, gathered via its tracking cookies and pixels — receiving only evasive answers in return.

Facebook subsequently announced it will launch a Clear History feature, claiming this will let users purge their browsing history from Facebook. But it’s less clear whether the control will allow people to clear their data off of Facebook’s servers entirely.

The feature requires users to trust that Facebook is doing what it claims to be doing. And plenty of questions remain. So, from a consumer point of view, it’s much better to defeat or dilute tracking in the first place — which is what the clutch of features Apple announced yesterday are intended to do.

“It turns out these [like buttons and comment fields] can be used to track you whether you click on them or not. And so this year we are shutting that down,” said Federighi, drawing sustained applause and appreciative woos from the WWDC audience.

He demoed how Safari will show a pop-up asking users whether or not they want to allow the plugin to track their browsing — letting web browsers “decide to keep your information private”, as he put it.

Safari will also immediately partition cookies for domains that Apple has “determined to have tracking abilities” — removing the 24 window after a website interaction that Apple allowed in the first version of IPT.

It has also engineered a feature designed to detect when a domain is solely used as a “first party bounce tracker” — i.e. meaning it is never used as a third party content provider but tracks the user purely through navigational redirects — with Safari also purging website data in such instances.

Another pro-privacy enhancement detailed by Federighi yesterday is intended to counter browser fingerprinting techniques that are also used to track users from site to site — and which can be a way of doing so even when/if tracking cookies are cleared.

“Data companies are clever and relentless,” he said. “It turns out that when you browse the web your device can be identified by a unique set of characteristics like its configuration, its fonts you have installed, and the plugins you might have installed on a device.

“With Mojave we’re making it much harder for trackers to create a unique fingerprint. We’re presenting websites with only a simplified system configuration. We show them only built-in fonts. And legacy plugins are no longer supported so those can’t contribute to a fingerprint. And as a result your Mac will look more like everyone else’s Mac and will it be dramatically more difficult for data companies to uniquely identify your device and track you.”

In a post detailing IPT 2.0 on its WebKit developer blog, Apple security engineer John Wilander writes that Apple researchers found that cross-site trackers “help each other identify the user”.

“This is basically one tracker telling another tracker that ‘I think it’s user ABC’, at which point the second tracker tells a third tracker ‘Hey, Tracker One thinks it’s user ABC and I think it’s user XYZ’. We call this tracker collusion, and ITP 2.0 detects this behavior through a collusion graph and classifies all involved parties as trackers,” he explains, warning developers they should therefore “avoid making unnecessary redirects to domains that are likely to be classified as having tracking ability” — or else risk being mistaken for a tracker and penalized by having website data purged.

ITP 2.0 will also downgrade the referrer header of a webpage that a tracker can receive to “just the page’s origin for third party requests to domains that the system has classified as possible trackers and which have not received user interaction” (Apple specifies this is not just a visit to a site but must include an interaction such as a tap/click).

Apple gives the example of a user visiting ‘https://store.example/baby-products/strollers/deluxe-navy-blue.html’, and that page loading a resource from a tracker — which prior to ITP 2.0 would have received a request containing the full referrer (which contains details of the exact product being bought and from which lots of personal information can be inferred about the user).

But under ITP 2.0, the referrer will be reduced to just “https://store.example/”. Which is a very clear privacy win.

Another welcome privacy update for Mac users that Apple announced yesterday — albeit, it’s really just playing catch-up with Windows and iOS — is expanded privacy controls in Mojave around the camera and microphone so it’s protected by default for any app you run. The user has to authorize access, much like with iOS.

This DIY smart mirror is small, stunning and full of features

Several years ago Google X engineer Max Braun published a medium post on a smart mirror he made and now he’s back with a new version that’s smaller and smarter. This is a smart mirror I can get behind though I still find smart mirrors completely frivolous.

He published his project on Medium where he explains the process and the parts a person would need to build their own. This isn’t a project for everyone, but Max gives enough instructions that most enterprising builders should be able to hack something similar together.

I recently reviewed a smart mirror and found it a bit silly but still useful. Ideally, like in Max’s smart mirrors, the software is passive and always available. Users shouldn’t have to think about interacting with the devices; the right information should be displayed automatically. It’s a balancing act.

At this point, smart mirrors are little more than Android tablets placed behind a two-way mirror. Retail models are expensive to be buy and hardly worth it since a person’s phone or voice assistant can probably provide the same information. After all, how many devices does a person really need to tell them the weather forecast?

Google brings its ARCore technology to China in partnership with Xiaomi

Google is ramping up its efforts to return to China. Earlier this year, the search giant detailed plans to bring its ARCore technology — which enables augmented reality and virtual reality — to phones in China and this week that effort went live with its first partner, Xiaomi.

Initially the technology will be available for Xiaomi’s Mix 2S devices via an app in the Xiaomi App Store, but Google has plans to add more partners in Mainland China over time. Huawei and Samsung are two confirmed names that have signed up to distribute ARCore apps on Chinese soil, Google said previously.

Google’s core services remain blocked in China but ARCore apps are able to work there because the technology itself works on device without the cloud, which means that once apps are downloaded to a phone there’s nothing that China’s internet censors can do to disrupt them.

Rather than software, the main challenge is distribution. The Google Play Store is restricted in China, and in its place China has a fragmented landscape that consists of more than a dozen major third-party Android app stores. That explains why Google has struck deals with the likes of Xiaomi and Huawei, which operate their own app stores which — pre-loaded on their devices — can help Google reach consumers.

ARCore in action

The ARCore strategy for China, while subtle, is part of a sustained push to grow Google’s presence in China. While that hasn’t meant reviving the Google Play Store — despite plenty of speculation in the media — Google has ramped up in other areas.

In recent months, the company has struck a partnership with Tencent, agreed to invest in a number of China-based startups — including biotech-focused XtalPi and live-streaming service Chushou — and announced an AI lab in Beijing. Added to that, Google gained a large tech presence in Taiwan via the completion of its acquisition of a chunk of HTC, and it opened a presence in Shenzhen, the Chinese city known as ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware.’

Finally, it is also hosting its first ‘Demo Day’ program for startups in Asia with an event planned for Shanghai, China, this coming September. Applications to take part in the initiative opened last week.

Facebook, Google face first GDPR complaints over “forced consent”

After two years coming down the pipe at tech giants, Europe’s new privacy framework, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is now being applied — and long time Facebook privacy critic, Max Schrems, has wasted no time in filing four complaints relating to (certain) companies’ ‘take it or leave it’ stance when it comes to consent.

The complaints have been filed on behalf of (unnamed) individual users — with one filed against Facebook; one against Facebook-owned Instagram; one against Facebook-owned WhatsApp; and one against Google’s Android.

Schrems argues that the companies are using a strategy of “forced consent” to continue processing the individuals’ personal data — when in fact the law requires that users be given a free choice unless a consent is strictly necessary for provision of the service. (And, well, Facebook claims its core product is social networking — rather than farming people’s personal data for ad targeting.)

“It’s simple: Anything strictly necessary for a service does not need consent boxes anymore. For everything else users must have a real choice to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” Schrems writes in a statement.

“Facebook has even blocked accounts of users who have not given consent,” he adds. “In the end users only had the choice to delete the account or hit the “agree”-button — that’s not a free choice, it more reminds of a North Korean election process.”

We’ve reached out to all the companies involved for comment and will update this story with any response.

The European privacy campaigner most recently founded a not-for-profit digital rights organization to focus on strategic litigation around the bloc’s updated privacy framework, and the complaints have been filed via this crowdfunded NGO — which is called noyb (aka ‘none of your business’).

As we pointed out in our GDPR explainer, the provision in the regulation allowing for collective enforcement of individuals’ data rights in an important one, with the potential to strengthen the implementation of the law by enabling non-profit organizations such as noyb to file complaints on behalf of individuals — thereby helping to redress the imbalance between corporate giants and consumer rights.

That said, the GDPR’s collective redress provision is a component that Member States can choose to derogate from, which helps explain why the first four complaints have been filed with data protection agencies in Austria, Belgium, France and Hamburg in Germany — regions that also have data protection agencies with a strong record defending privacy rights.

Given that the Facebook companies involved in these complaints have their European headquarters in Ireland it’s likely the Irish data protection agency will get involved too. And it’s fair to say that, within Europe, Ireland does not have a strong reputation for defending data protection rights.

But the GDPR allows for DPAs in different jurisdictions to work together in instances where they have joint concerns and where a service crosses borders — so noyb’s action looks intended to test this element of the new framework too.

Under the penalty structure of GDPR, major violations of the law can attract fines as large as 4% of a company’s global revenue which, in the case of Facebook or Google, implies they could be on the hook for more than a billion euros apiece — if they are deemed to have violated the law, as the complaints argue.

That said, given how freshly fixed in place the rules are, some EU regulators may well tread softly on the enforcement front — at least in the first instances, to give companies some benefit of the doubt and/or a chance to make amends to come into compliance if they are deemed to be falling short of the new standards.

However, in instances where companies themselves appear to be attempting to deform the law with a willfully self-serving interpretation of the rules, regulators may feel they need to act swiftly to nip any disingenuousness in the bud.

“We probably will not immediately have billions of penalty payments, but the corporations have intentionally violated the GDPR, so we expect a corresponding penalty under GDPR,” writes Schrems.

Only yesterday, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — speaking in an on stage interview at the VivaTech conference in Paris — claimed his company hasn’t had to make any radical changes to comply with GDPR, and further claimed that a “vast majority” of Facebook users are willingly opting in to targeted advertising via its new consent flow.

“We’ve been rolling out the GDPR flows for a number of weeks now in order to make sure that we were doing this in a good way and that we could take into account everyone’s feedback before the May 25 deadline. And one of the things that I’ve found interesting is that the vast majority of people choose to opt in to make it so that we can use the data from other apps and websites that they’re using to make ads better. Because the reality is if you’re willing to see ads in a service you want them to be relevant and good ads,” said Zuckerberg.

He did not mention that the dominant social network does not offer people a free choice on accepting or declining targeted advertising. The new consent flow Facebook revealed ahead of GDPR only offers the ‘choice’ of quitting Facebook entirely if a person does not want to accept targeting advertising. Which, well, isn’t much of a choice given how powerful the network is. (Additionally, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook continues tracking non-users — so even deleting a Facebook account does not guarantee that Facebook will stop processing your personal data.)

Asked about how Facebook’s business model will be affected by the new rules, Zuckerberg essentially claimed nothing significant will change — “because giving people control of how their data is used has been a core principle of Facebook since the beginning”.

“The GDPR adds some new controls and then there’s some areas that we need to comply with but overall it isn’t such a massive departure from how we’ve approached this in the past,” he claimed. “I mean I don’t want to downplay it — there are strong new rules that we’ve needed to put a bunch of work into into making sure that we complied with — but as a whole the philosophy behind this is not completely different from how we’ve approached things.

“In order to be able to give people the tools to connect in all the ways they want and build committee a lot of philosophy that is encoded in a regulation like GDPR is really how we’ve thought about all this stuff for a long time. So I don’t want to understate the areas where there are new rules that we’ve had to go and implement but I also don’t want to make it seem like this is a massive departure in how we’ve thought about this stuff.”

Zuckerberg faced a range of tough questions on these points from the EU parliament earlier this week. But he avoided answering them in any meaningful detail.

So EU regulators are essentially facing a first test of their mettle — i.e. whether they are willing to step up and defend the line of the law against big tech’s attempts to reshape it in their business model’s image.

Privacy laws are nothing new in Europe but robust enforcement of them would certainly be a breath of fresh air. And now at least, thanks to GDPR, there’s a penalties structure in place to provide incentives as well as teeth, and spin up a market around strategic litigation — with Schrems and noyb in the vanguard.

Schrems also makes the point that small startups and local companies are less likely to be able to use the kind of strong-arm ‘take it or leave it’ tactics on users that big tech is able to use to extract consent on account of the reach and power of their platforms — arguing there’s a competition concern that GDPR should also help to redress.

“The fight against forced consent ensures that the corporations cannot force users to consent,” he writes. “This is especially important so that monopolies have no advantage over small businesses.”

Image credit: noyb.eu

8 big announcements from Google I/O 2018

Google kicked off its annual I/O developer conference at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. Here are some of the biggest announcements from the Day 1 keynote. There will be more to come over the next couple of days, so follow along on everything Google I/O on TechCrunch. 

Google goes all in on artificial intelligence, rebranding its research division to Google AI

Just before the keynote, Google announced it is rebranding its Google Research division to Google AI. The move signals how Google has increasingly focused R&D on computer vision, natural language processing, and neural networks.

Google makes talking to the Assistant more natural with “continued conversation”

What Google announced: Google announced a “continued conversation” update to Google Assistant that makes talking to the Assistant feel more natural. Now, instead of having to say “Hey Google” or “OK Google” every time you want to say a command, you’ll only have to do so the first time. The company also is adding a new feature that allows you to ask multiple questions within the same request. All this will roll out in the coming weeks.

Why it’s important: When you’re having a typical conversation, odds are you are asking follow-up questions if you didn’t get the answer you wanted. But it can be jarring to have to say “Hey Google” every single time, and it breaks the whole flow and makes the process feel pretty unnatural. If Google wants to be a significant player when it comes to voice interfaces, the actual interaction has to feel like a conversation — not just a series of queries.

Google Photos gets an AI boost

What Google announced: Google Photos already makes it easy for you to correct photos with built-in editing tools and AI-powered features for automatically creating collages, movies and stylized photos. Now, Photos is getting more AI-powered fixes like B&W photo colorization, brightness correction and suggested rotations. A new version of the Google Photos app will suggest quick fixes and tweaks like rotations, brightness corrections or adding pops of color.

Why it’s important: Google is working to become a hub for all of your photos, and it’s able to woo potential users by offering powerful tools to edit, sort, and modify those photos. Each additional photo Google gets offers it more data and helps them get better and better at image recognition, which in the end not only improves the user experience for Google, but also makes its own tools for its services better. Google, at its heart, is a search company — and it needs a lot of data to get visual search right.

Google Assistant and YouTube are coming to Smart Displays

What Google announced: Smart Displays were the talk of Google’s CES push this year, but we haven’t heard much about Google’s Echo Show competitor since. At I/O, we got a little more insight into the company’s smart display efforts. Google’s first Smart Displays will launch in July, and of course will be powered by Google Assistant and YouTube . It’s clear that the company’s invested some resources into building a visual-first version of Assistant, justifying the addition of a screen to the experience.

Why it’s important: Users are increasingly getting accustomed to the idea of some smart device sitting in their living room that will answer their questions. But Google is looking to create a system where a user can ask questions and then have an option to have some kind of visual display for actions that just can’t be resolved with a voice interface. Google Assistant handles the voice part of that equation — and having YouTube is a good service that goes alongside that.

Google Assistant is coming to Google Maps

What Google announced: Google Assistant is coming to Google Maps, available on iOS and Android this summer. The addition is meant to provide better recommendations to users. Google has long worked to make Maps seem more personalized, but since Maps is now about far more than just directions, the company is introducing new features to give you better recommendations for local places.

The maps integration also combines the camera, computer vision technology, and Google Maps with Street View. With the camera/Maps combination, it really looks like you’ve jumped inside Street View. Google Lens can do things like identify buildings, or even dog breeds, just by pointing your camera at the object in question. It will also be able to identify text.

Why it’s important: Maps is one of Google’s biggest and most important products. There’s a lot of excitement around augmented reality — you can point to phenomena like Pokémon Go — and companies are just starting to scratch the surface of the best use cases for it. Figuring out directions seems like such a natural use case for a camera, and while it was a bit of a technical feat, it gives Google yet another perk for its Maps users to keep them inside the service and not switch over to alternatives. Again, with Google, everything comes back to the data, and it’s able to capture more data if users stick around in its apps.

Google announces a new generation for its TPU machine learning hardware

What Google announced: As the war for creating customized AI hardware heats up, Google said that it is rolling out its third generation of silicon, the Tensor Processor Unit 3.0. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the new TPU is 8x more powerful than last year per pod, with up to 100 petaflops in performance. Google joins pretty much every other major company in looking to create custom silicon in order to handle its machine operations.

Why it’s important: There’s a race to create the best machine learning tools for developers. Whether that’s at the framework level with tools like TensorFlow or PyTorch or at the actual hardware level, the company that’s able to lock developers into its ecosystem will have an advantage over the its competitors. It’s especially important as Google looks to build its cloud platform, GCP, into a massive business while going up against Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft Azure. Giving developers — who are already adopting TensorFlow en masse — a way to speed up their operations can help Google continue to woo them into Google’s ecosystem.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – MAY 08: Google CEO Sundar Pichai delivers the keynote address at the Google I/O 2018 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 8, 2018 in Mountain View, California. Google’s two day developer conference runs through Wednesday May 9. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Google News gets an AI-powered redesign

What Google announced: Watch out, Facebook . Google is also planning to leverage AI in a revamped version of Google News. The AI-powered, redesigned news destination app will “allow users to keep up with the news they care about, understand the full story, and enjoy and support the publishers they trust.” It will leverage elements found in Google’s digital magazine app, Newsstand and YouTube, and introduces new features like “newscasts” and “full coverage” to help people get a summary or a more holistic view of a news story.

Why it’s important: Facebook’s main product is literally called “News Feed,” and it serves as a major source of information for a non-trivial portion of the planet. But Facebook is embroiled in a scandal over personal data of as many as 87 million users ending up in the hands of a political research firm, and there are a lot of questions over Facebook’s algorithms and whether they surface up legitimate information. That’s a huge hole that Google could exploit by offering a better news product and, once again, lock users into its ecosystem.

Google unveils ML Kit, an SDK that makes it easy to add AI smarts to iOS and Android apps

What Google announced: Google unveiled ML Kit, a new software development kit for app developers on iOS and Android that allows them to integrate pre-built, Google-provided machine learning models into apps. The models support text recognition, face detection, barcode scanning, image labeling and landmark recognition.

Why it’s important: Machine learning tools have enabled a new wave of use cases that include use cases built on top of image recognition or speech detection. But even though frameworks like TensorFlow have made it easier to build applications that tap those tools, it can still take a high level of expertise to get them off the ground and running. Developers often figure out the best use cases for new tools and devices, and development kits like ML Kit help lower the barrier to entry and give developers without a ton of expertise in machine learning a playground to start figuring out interesting use cases for those appliocations.

So when will you be able to actually play with all these new features? The Android P beta is available today, and you can find the upgrade here.

Watch Google I/O keynote live right here

How did you find Microsoft Build yesterday? We don’t really have time for your answer because Google I/O is already here! Google is kicking off its annual developer conference today. As usual, there will be a consumer keynote with major new products in the morning, and a developer-centric keynote in the afternoon.

The conference starts at 10 AM Pacific Time (1 PM on the East Cost, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris) and you can watch the live stream right here on this page.

Rumor has it that Google is about to share more details about Android P, the next major release of its Android platform. But you can also expect some Google Assistant and Google Home news, some virtual reality news and maybe even some Wear OS news. We have a team on the ground ready to cover the event, so don’t forget to read TechCrunch to get our take on today’s news.

Google I/O kicks off tomorrow — here’s what to expect

Google has been rolling out news at a steady rate since last week, in what feels like a bit of a last-minute clearinghouse ahead of tomorrow. The company’s already taken the wraps off of news about Android TV, Google Home, Wear OS Assistant, you name it. If this were practically any other company, we’d be concerned that there’s nothing left to discuss.

But this is Google. The next few days are going to be jam-packed with developer news and a whole lot of information around the company’s consumer-facing offerings over the next year and beyond. Android, Assistant, Wear OS, search and the like are going to take center stage when the company kicks off the festivities tomorrow at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.

You’d better believe we’ll be on-hand bringing you all of the relevant information as it breaks. In the meantime, here’s some of what you can expect from the big show.

Android P

The latest version of Google’s mobile operating system seems likely to take center stage here — be it Peppermint Patty, Pudding or Popsicle. The first developer preview of 9.0 dropped in March of this year, and I/O is likely to be the launching pad of the next big one. Given how much of Oreo’s changes happened behind the scenes, it stands to reason that we’re in for a more consumer-facing update for the OS this time out.

We’ve already seen a bit of those visual updates, including new notifications and some upgrades setting the stage for the nearly ubiquitous top notch. That, by most accounts, won’t be going away any time soon. “Material Design 2” is a buzzword that’s been floating around for a few months now to describe the first major overhaul to the OS’s aesthetic in about four years, bringing an overall flatter and more universal design language to Android.

We’ll also likely get some more insight into a gesture-based navigation that takes some cues from the iPhone X.

Assistant/Home

Assistant has been a linchpin in Google’s ecosystem play for a few years now, and its importance is only likely to grow. Announcements over the past couple of weeks have broadened the company’s Siri/Alexa competitor to even more categories, including Android TV and Wear OS, so probably don’t do an Assistant-related drinking game tomorrow, unless you’re gunning for alcohol poisoning.

It also seems fairly likely that we’ll see more devices on this front. A second version of Google Home seems overdue. That could well get an Echo-like update, bringing it up to speed with the rest of the line. And what of all of those Smart Displays the company talked up back at CES? Things have been pretty quiet on that front — perhaps a little too quiet.

Expect partnerships galore. The company showed off a Fandango Action just this week — and that’s likely to only be the tip of the iceberg.

AR/VR/AI

Artificial intelligence has also been gaining plenty of steam on the Google campus. AI and ML have been the driving forces in key offerings like Translate, Lens and, of course, Assistant, which the company is looking to truly distinguish from the competition. The company’s TensorFlow machine learning engine is going to get a lot of attention.

Google also just recently took the wraps off the Lenovo-branded Daydream headset, setting the stage for some big VR talk at this week’s show. Of course, the company seems even more content to focus on augmented reality these days. The tech has been a focus recently on Pixel devices, as the company looks to distinguish ARCore from Apple’s ARKit. Now’s the time for the company to really double down on what’s becoming a more and more important piece of mobile tech.

Wear OS

This is a tough one. Google already revealed some Assistant features for the newly rebranded wearable operating system, perhaps in an attempt to build a little excitement around what, by most accounts, has been a pretty stagnant product category for the company. Wearables in general have been on a bit of a downward trajectory and Google specifically hasn’t done a lot to change that.

The company really needs to come in with guns blazing here and reassert itself in the category. Assistant integration will do a bit to help invigorate the company, but expect to see Google do a much better job laying out what the future of wearables will look like under the new rebrand.

Google I/O kicks off tomorrow. You can follow along here