New Google gadgets will watch, listen

 

GOOGLE is well known for teetering on a tightrope between creepy and useful.

And the company's new swag of hardware and software demonstrates both ends of the tech spectrum.

On one hand, the tech giant created cutting-edge camera features evidently good enough to win an Annie Liebovitz endorsement.

On the other hand, Google appears to be hellbent on sneaking smart speakers into all corners of your household even if you only asked for a better wi-fi signal.

Then there are questions about longer surveillance times, and if your phone should monitor your gestures.

It's this creeping (and creepy) scope users should scrutinise carefully before committing to the company's shiny new things.

Google officially lifted the lid on its latest products in New York overnight after, as several pundits put it, more leaks than the Titanic.

Many features in its new Pixel 4 flagship phones came as little surprise but that doesn't mean they're not welcome.

The smartphones feature two rear cameras for the first time, for example, promise greater exposure controls, and boldly offer to tackle astrophotography.

Photographing stars and even galaxies requires recording several long-exposure shots, removing noise, and stitching images together. It's a huge promise and one only Google is likely to tackle.

The Pixel smartphones also promise to transcribe audio recordings as you make them, deliver all-day battery life, and unlock your phone when it senses that you're reaching for it.

But that's where the balance between useful and creepy starts to tip.

 

A Google Pixel 4 phone is photographed at an event announcing the product. Picture: AP
A Google Pixel 4 phone is photographed at an event announcing the product. Picture: AP

 

A radar in this smartphone will be monitoring your movements, predicting what you're about to do, learning your habits. This technology can also be used to dismiss alarms and silence calls but it's a strange trade-off for the feeling you're always being watched.

The Pixel 4 will also feature a redesigned Google Assistant when it launches this summer and it's designed to listen to you for longer.

Using a feature called Continued Conversation, the new Assistant will listen for 30 seconds after your last Google query. The added surveillance is designed to respond to follow-up questions and commands, but it's likely to pick up significantly more of your everyday chats, thoughts, and frustrations that no tech company should be recording and sending to third parties for analysis.

And, in the most controversial addition, Google's new home networking devices will now pull double-duty as smart speakers. That's a lot of extra digital ears on households who just wanted to boost their wi-fi coverage.

It's a shame for privacy-loving potential users too. The last version of this device was incredibly handy without extra intrusions.

Google's argument is, of course, that you can turn off these features.

If you read the instructions, you can switch off the microphones in these wi-fi boosters. If you go through the phone's settings, you can opt out of extended surveillance. You can also work out how to disable the radar if it creeps you out.

But, just like we all click OK on complicated legal consents, many people won't question these new permissions or won't take the time to figure out how to turn them off.

And that is where the quest to be more 'productive' becomes 'counter-productive' for privacy.

 

WHAT WAS LAUNCHED AT THE EVENT

Google has launched its latest play to get inside your home, pockets, and ears overnight, unveiling a suite of new gadgets packed with everything from radars to artificial intelligence, and all of which act as listening devices.

The internet giant's new swag of hardware also included two highly anticipated smartphones that will arrive in Australia this month with more cameras than before, an astrophotography mode, hands-free gesture controls, and a price that undercuts its major rival, the Apple iPhone, by as much as $700.

But industry experts say the company could have left it "10 years too late" to become a serious smartphone contender and will have a difficult challenge ahead convincing Australian consumers to make the switch.

Google hardware senior vice-president Rick Osterloh unveiled the company's latest devices in New York overnight, ranging from tiny new earbuds that summoned Google Assistant to an updated home Wi-Fi system with built-in smart speakers.

Mr Osterloh said all seven devices at the event were designed to fulfil Google's vision of "ambient computing" in which technology surrounded users rather than remained confined to devices.

"In the mobile era, smartphones changed the world. It's super useful to have a powerful computer everywhere you are," he said. "But it's even more useful when computing is anywhere you need it, always available to help."
 

Rick Osterloh, SVP of Google Hardware. Picture: AP
Rick Osterloh, SVP of Google Hardware. Picture: AP

 

As such, Google added its virtual assistant to all the devices earmarked for Australia, including the tiny Pixel Earbuds that are due to be released next year, and its updated Nest Wi-Fi kit ($399-$549) designed to spread and boost the internet signal around your home. Its wi-fi "points" now double as Google smart speakers.

But Google's biggest technology plays were saved for the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL smartphones, that will feature two rear cameras for the first time, including a telephoto lens, along with the first astrophotography mode in a smartphone, and a miniature radar.

Google product management vice-president Sabrina Ellis said the radar would allow "more human interactions with your phone" in a feature called Motion Sense.

It registered hand movements, like a swiping gesture over a phone, to let users skip a song or silence an alarm, she said, and would also predict when you were about to pick the phone up and unlock it pre-emptively.

Other Pixel additions will include Recorder, which transcribes audio recordings as they are made, a larger battery, more RAM, and facial recognition for security. 

The Pixel 4 smartphones will also come with significantly smaller price tags than that of Apple iPhone 11 Pro models at their October 24 launch. Prices will start at $1049 and $1279, undercutting Apple by as much as $700.

Telsyte managing director Foad Fadaghi said Google had little choice but to battle the dominant players on price as they had a "difficult challenge" to win over consumers.

"Google can't be a price leader in a market where it's not dominant," he said. "Given consumers have a high repeat purchase intention with their current manufacture, Google needs new angles to break that down and price has to be one of them."

 

Telsyte managing director Foad Fadaghi. Picture: Supplied
Telsyte managing director Foad Fadaghi. Picture: Supplied

 

A Kantar ComTech spokeswoman said Google smartphone sales in Australia had risen, but still only represented 2.9 per cent of all handsets sold this August.

But Mr Fadaghi said even though Google was late to the smartphone battle, it was more successful at putting smart speakers into Australian households, and could do so again with its newly announced $79 Nest Mini speaker. 

"That's always been a key strategy: to use its smart speakers and small lower price products as a Trojan into the household," Mr Fadaghi said.



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