The Silicon Valley tech giant’s new voice-controlled device is about to hit the market loaded with the company’s development power, setting up competition with Amazon’s own device.
As artificial-intelligence personas built by tech titans duel over space on the kitchen counter, Google is bringing out the big guns.
On Tuesday, the Alphabet unit unveiled a voice-controlled device dubbed “Google Home” that promises to be a powerful rival to Amazon.com’s Echo and to Alexa, the digital assistant that gives Echo a soul.
The Mountain View, Calif., company showed off the device at a launch event Tuesday in San Francisco, where it also showed two new high-end smartphones called the Pixel.
The Home is a voice-powered speaker that looks like a fancy scented candle, and seems to do many of the things an Echo does. It controls lights, plays music and finds answers to questions through an Alexa-like artificial intelligence simply called the “Assistant.” This Assistant promises an open ecosystem for app developers, much as Alexa does.
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In fact, some of the lines used by Google executives touting the new product at the launch event, which was webcasted, could have been used in 2014 to describe the Echo at its introduction.
“The great thing is, I never had to pull out a phone or deal with a clunky remote control,” said Rishi Chandra, a vice president at Google, describing the joy of having Google Home play some music from YouTube.
But a few differences, built on the strength of Google’s ability to understand context in search queries, and years of investment in cataloging the world, make it clear that this is not just a game of catching up.
For example, if one doesn’t remember a song’s exact name, Google’s search algorithms can help out. At the event, Chandra successfully asked the Home device to find “that Shakira song from Zootopia.” It can also scour other websites for answers to such questions as “how do you get wine stains out of a rug?”
“This is really, really hard. And it’s something only Google can do,” Chandra said.
The Assistant-powered Home could also translate a simple phrase into Spanish, a benefit derived from Google’s massive investments in translation algorithms and which promises a quick pathway to global deployment.
To be sure, Google has had a spotty story with devices. Amazon has a strong lead, having sold millions of cylindrical Echos in the U.S.
It recently said it was taking Alexa to the U.K. and to Germany, making the artificial-intelligence project cross not only the pond, but also a language barrier for the first time.
Amazon is also staffing up in droves: There are more than 400 open jobs related to Alexa.
Meanwhile, Alexa’s open ecosystem is luring thousands of developers and entrepreneurs, some of which Amazon bankrolls through a venture-capital fund.
Amazon has devoted big advertising dollars to Alexa, making it the star of its first-ever Super Bowl ad and Monday launching a new campaign with more than 100 ten-second spots showcasing the digital assistant’s abilities.
But Google’s announcement Tuesday means Amazon’s hard-won advantage could be just the first battle of a protracted campaign by powerful, deep-pocketed players that see that their future goes beyond software and devices.
That’s not to mention AI advances with digital assistants at other tech giants — Apple and its Siri, Microsoft and Cortana and Facebook’s M — already in the market.
“We’re moving from a mobile-first world to an A.I. first world,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said.
Google Home, available for pre-order, sells for $129 (at the Google Store it currently says it will ship in four to five weeks). Its magnetically attached base can be switched out for another one in a different color (up to seven colors).
The Echo, by contrast, comes in black or white; the bigger model costs $180, but the smaller Echo Dot costs $50.
Google’s Pixel phones also come with the Assistant built in.
The phones’ branding marks a departure from the Nexus line of smartphones, in which Google shared the spotlight with another manufacturer. It seems to reflect the company’s aim to gain more control over how consumers interact with its software, like Microsoft has tried to do with its Surface line of products.
A Pixel with 5-inch display starts at $649 at the Google store, and the 5.5-inch version starts at $769.
Google also announced Daydream, a virtual-reality headset to be launched in November.