Google Debuts New Pixel Phone with Voice Assistant, Virtual Reality Headset

Pixel Phone by Google shown during the #MadeByGoogle launch event on Oct. 4, 2016.

Courtesy Photo

Last month, Apple began its iPhone 7 event with a clip featuring Tim Cook and James Corden sending up Corden's "Car Pool Karaoke" series. Today, Google had its own celebrity-fueled intro, featuring Silicon Valley's Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr, whose portrayals as disaffected Palo Alto-based engineers have become a totem of sorts for the San Francisco tech community.

Much like Apple, Google immediately turned its keynote, which took place at a converted chocolate factory in San Francisco, to introduce Pixel, the company's new smartphone. And much like Apple, as hardware svp Rick Osterloh pointed out, "building hardware and software together" will, going forward, allow the company to more tightly control, and smooth out, users' experience with its products. Google's smartphone software Android, which has been widely adopted by companies like Xiaomi and Samsung in the phones they design and manufacture, has become fractured from a user experience perspective as those companies have integrated their own software and designs into it.

Pixel Phone by Google shown during the #MadeByGoogle launch event on Oct. 4, 2016.Courtesy Photo

Google CEO Sundar Pichai's opening presentation explained -- again -- the company's push into voice technology and machine learning. "It all started in the early '80s, when the personal computer reached the mainstream," Pichai said, explaining the historical foundations that have led to Google Assistant, a cross-device and voice-capable personal assistant that relies on machine learning -- essentially, pattern recognition by computers -- to help locate photos and connect multiple different requests by its user.

Google also introduced a virtual reality headset, which it has named Daydream. The headset won't be competing with Facebook's Oculus Rift, which requires a beefy computer in order to operate, but rather will run on certain phones -- the Pixel first, naturally -- and will serve as a middle ground between Oculus and Google's barebones Cardboard viewer. That middle ground is necessary for the burgeoning sector; the virtual reality market has been picking up rhetorical steam over the past year, but mainstream adoption remains an unknown quantity. The company says over 50 partners would be bringing "hundreds of games" to the headset by the end of the year, including an exclusive partnership with Fantastic Beasts, the upcoming film set in the world of Harry Potter.

Google also unveiled Chromecast Ultra, an update to its Roku-like streaming device Chromecast with a higher-quality video capability. 

It also re-introduced the Home smart speaker, positioned as a competitor to Amazon's Alexa, as well as a similar, forthcoming product from Apple. The Home speaker will cost $129, and is available for pre-order today, with shipping to begin on Nov. 4.

"Do everything you love online, anywhere in your house," the company says of the new Google WiFi, a customizable networking system. "Google Wifi was designed to handle multiple devices streaming, downloading, and sharing at the same time." It's all controlled by a simple app and includes a handy feature that lets you pause the signal to your children’s devices. (A break from PewDiePie and Stampy Cat? Yes!)

The company repeatedly invoked music as a key draw for its products during the presentation, including a voice search on information about Adele -- despite her avowed reticence of the streaming economy -- and all that in the face of unrelenting criticism of YouTube this year from the recording industry at large.

YouTube has yet to solve (or acknowledge the existence of) the value gap, but its parent company has clearly made significant headway into its fight with a different monster: Apple.