Google unveils Assistant delights at CES

It wasn’t going to be long before Google stole the show with a horde of updates to the virtual assistant. And in fairness, some of them look pretty useful.

Who is leading the smart assistant battle varies depending on who you are talking to, but the importance of this segment is consistent throughout. With more users becoming comfortable with the voice UI, buying power will gradually shift away from the smartphone screen and onto connected devices. Whoever has the best and most prominent virtual assistant will control the relationship with the consumer.

Google might dominant search revenues for the moment, but the smart home and the connected economy are changing the status quo; the Google Assistant is one of the ways the firm will stay relevant. So, what is new?

To kick things off, the team has launched Google Assistant Connect, a platform for device manufacturers to bring the Google Assistant into their products in an affordable and easy-to-implement way. This is an important step for the Google team to take, as it allows for scale. Google’s speakers and smart products will not dominate the smart home forever. Sooner or later, traditional brands will take the lion’s share of spend as the mass market will be more comfortable buying from the trusted, specialised brands. But the ambition for Google in the smart home should be in the software not the products.

Google needs to make it as easy as possible for appliance and device manufacturers to incorporate the virtual assistant. Just as it is with the search engine, scale is everything. The more users Google is interacting with, the more accurate its algorithms become and more money its advertising models can generate.

As it stands, the Google Assistant currently works with over 1,600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices. This number will only accelerate as the mass market acceptance of smart home devices and applications becomes more apparent.

Another area which has been targeted by the firm in recent months has been automotive. Back in September, Google was named as the technology partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, allowing it to embed the Android operating system directly in vehicles. Last year, the alliance sold a combined 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets across the world. At CES, Google announced a number of new features which would increase the usability of its applications in the car.

One of the updates is to bring the Assistant to Google Maps. Not only will the Assistant help with navigation, but users will be able to use voice commands to send messages to friends, such as estimated time of arrival. The Assistant can also be commanded to search for points of interest or stop-off points along the designated route. It’s a useful little update.

The final update which we like to draw attention to is focused on travel. Before too long, users will be able to instruct the Google Assistant to check them into flights (starting with US domestic flights), and also book hotel rooms at the destination. How effectively this will work remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how many hotels the Assistant has to choose from (as well as the price ranges), but again, it is a useful update.

Virtual assistants are not new, but they are becoming increasingly normalised in the eyes of the consumer. The voice UI is starting to make a genuine impact on the technology landscape the sci-fi image of tomorrow might not be as ridiculous as once though. Perhaps if someone nails AR glasses the smartphone screen might become redundant sooner rather than later.

The connected car takes pole position at CES

With the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, it perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise the connected car is stealing the headlines at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Starting with Audi, pairing up with Disney the team has unveiled an in-car VR entertainment system which adapts the content to the movements of the car. The game itself is called ‘Marvel’s Avengers: Rocket’s Rescue Run’ and is based on the journey itself. If the car turns right or accelerates the spaceship in the experience does the same.

While Audi is the parent company, the open platform has been brought to the market through subsidy Holoride. Audi will license the technology to the start-up, which will be made available to all carmakers and content developers in the future.

“Creative minds will use our platform to come up with fascinating worlds that turn the journey from A to B into a real adventure,” said Nils Wollny, Head of Digital Business at Audi, and future the CEO of Holoride. “We can only develop this new entertainment segment by adopting a cooperative, open approach for vehicle, device and content producers.”

Moving across to the mapping side of the connected vehicle, Intel’s Mobileye announced a new agreement with UK mapping agency Ordnance Survey. Although this might not be the most exciting aspect of the connected car space, it is perhaps the most crucial; without the relevant location data, the OS is pretty much useless.

While this data will certainly supplement the Intel offering for the connected car space, Mobileye and Ordnance Survey will use the data to create new customized solutions derived from the location intelligence, to help companies realise the riches promised through the city segment.

“One key, and common, learning is that detailed and accurate geospatial data is a must for the success of these projects,” said Neil Ackroyd, Ordnance Survey CEO. “We envisage this new rich data to be key to how vehicles, infrastructure, people and more will communicate in the digital age. Our partnership with Mobileye further enhances our commitment to supporting Britain as a world-leading center for digital and tech excellence.”

For chipmaker Qualcomm there’s been no rest to check out the shows. While Audi, Ducati and Ford have all been using its tech to run various demos across the show, the team has also teamed up with Amazon’s Alexa to demonstrate in-car artificial intelligence.

“The vision behind Qualcomm Technologies’ automotive solutions is to continuously improve and expand the realm of possibilities for in-car experiences while delivering unparalleled safety-conscious solutions,” said Nakul Duggal, SVP of Product Management, Qualcomm.

“Leveraging Amazon’s natural language processing technology, along with services like Amazon Music, Prime Video, Fire TV and Audible, allows us to offer an exclusive, interactive in-car experience for both the drivers and passengers to leverage the latest innovations in a natural, intuitive way.”

The demonstration makes use of Qualcomm’s Smart Audio Platform to include immersive natural language instructions involving in-vehicle navigation, points of interest outside the car and multimedia services which users will use every day at home with Alexa.

“Our vision is for Alexa to be available anywhere customers want to interact with her, whether they’re at home, in the office or on the go,” said Ned Curic, VP of Alexa Auto at Amazon.

This is of course not the only bit of news featuring Amazon this week, as the team announced a partnership with navigation firm Here yesterday. The tie in gives the Here platform a smarter, voice UI and gives Alexa a useful little foray into the connected car segment, an area Google’s virtual assistant has got a little bit of a head-start in.

Finally, AT&T and Toyota Motor North America announced they will enable 4G LTE connectivity for various Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks across the US, starting at the end of the year. As part of the deal, owners of the relevant vehicles will also receive unlimited data plans from AT&T, while the vehicle will also become a wifi hotspot.

“Cars are the ultimate mobile device. Working with Toyota and KDDI we will bring the benefits of connectivity to millions of consumers,” said Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T.

“This new technology deepens our relationship with Toyota. And we couldn’t be happier to continue working with them. We’re both founding members of the American Center for Mobility testing facility for connected and automated vehicles, where we will help deliver the future of connectivity.”

Intel looks to maps to fuel autonomous vehicles race

Whoever wins the autonomous car race will make a fortune, so Intel is doubling down efforts. Millions are being directed towards R&D, and building its own mapping database is another good move.

Speaking at CES in Las Vegas, Mobileye (an Intel business) CEO Amnon Shashua said two million cars from BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen will all be fitted with a front-facing camera, which will aggregate location and environment data in the cloud, building high-definition maps with Mobileye’s Road Experience Management (REM) program. It might not be the most exciting aspect of autonomous vehicles, but an extensive mapping database is a good tool to have.

The boring parts of a technology are usually some of the most important, and this is no different. For an autonomous vehicle to work, it has to know what is going on around it. This isn’t simply a case of collecting visual data from the immediate surroundings, but being able to plan a journey at the beginning, or adjusting plans on data which has been collected from other vehicles further ahead. It isn’t the bouncing excitement of AI-processors or super-sensitive cameras, but it is just as (or arguably, more) important.

Aside from the BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen cars, relationships have also been announced with NavInfo and SAIC Motor, allowing the team to collect data in China. Considering most companies who have extensive mapping databases (Google, Uber etc.) have had difficulties operating in the Chinese market, these could be very significant partnerships.

As it stands, there are very few organizations which could answer the calls of the industry for suitably detailed mapping data, but Intel could soon be one of those. Assuming enough vehicles are sold, the database could be extensively populated without specific projects to collect the data, like Uber is doing now or Google has been doing for years. Such a database could make Intel a very attractive company for car brands to work with.

For the moment, this push is seemingly all about mapping data, but assuming the cameras get on enough vehicles, and the team is able to nail real-time data analytics, it would be a very useful database in the future. Intel has said the cameras on ADAS-equipped vehicles are intelligent agents that can also be used to collect dynamic data. Data on hazards, construction, traffic density and weather could be routed to other vehicles to allow for more efficient driving.

Mobileye recently signed a next-step agreement with Volkswagen to formalize the collection and marketing of this data, while there are also relationships the city of Dusseldorf, Spain Directorate-General of Traffic, Gett Taxi, Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance, and Buggy TLC Leasing for the use of this information.

Data is the new oil in the digital economy, and should Intel be able to horde enough through activities like this, it could turn out to be a very useful revenue stream. All of a sudden, Intel is no longer just a manufacturer of processors, but a lean, mean, data machine which has a business model suitable for the connected era.

Right now, the team has been shouting about Level 2/3 autonomous driving (some self-driving capabilities, but humans will still need to be aware), as well as Level 2+ breakthroughs. Level 2+ is a new one for us, but generally these sorts of claims are when the engineering team is struggling with a breakthrough, but the marketing team need something new to say. Intel isn’t a multi-national for no reason, it has some of the finest PR-minds and spin-gurus in the business.

Intel won’t be able to make money with this information, or at least any serious cash, for some time, but as long as it keeps collecting it will be an incredibly valuable resource once society is ready for the mass market penetration of autonomous vehicles.

Nvidia claims autonomous driving breakthrough, but let’s see

Nvidia has attempted to jump-start the CES PR euphoria, claiming it can achieve Level 5 autonomous driving right now with its Xavier processors.

The chip itself was initially announced 12 months ago, but this quarter has seen the processor delivered to customers. Testing has begun, and Nvidia has been stoking the fire with a very bold claim.

“Delivering the performance of a trunk full of PCs in an auto-grade form factor the size of a license plate, it’s the world’s first AI car supercomputer designed for fully autonomous Level 5 robotaxis,” Nvidia said on its blog.

Hyping up a product to almost undeliverable heights is of course nothing new in the tech world, and Nvidia has learned from the tried and tested playbook. Make an incredibly exceptional claim for a technology which is unlikely to be delivered to the real world for decades.

Xavier will form part of the Nvidia’s Drive software stack, containing 9 billion transistors. It is the product of a four-year project, sucking up $2 billion in research and development funds, with contributions from 2,000 engineers. It is built around an 8-core CPU, a 512-core Volta GPU, a deep learning accelerator, computer vision accelerators and 8K HDR video processors. All to deliver Level 5 autonomous driving.

Just as a recap, Level 5 autonomous driving is the holy grail. At this point, humans will not be needed to interact with the car at any point:

  • Level 0: Full-time performance by the human driver
  • Level 1: Driving assistance of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. Human drives the rest of the time.
  • Level 2: The system can be responsible for both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. This could be described as hands off automation.
  • Level 3: This is known officially as conditional automation. The autonomous driving system will be responsible for almost all aspects of the dynamic driving task. Humans will still need to be aware to intervene in certain circumstances. This could be described as eyes off automation.
  • Level 4: The car will be almost fully-autonomous, though there might be rare circumstances where a human would have to intervene. Aside from the most extreme circumstances, this could be described as mind off automation.
  • Level 5: Full autonomy. You don’t even have to be awake.

During the same pre-CES event, the team also announced AR products, new partnerships and solutions in the gaming space, but Level 5 autonomy is the headline maker. Reaching this level is all well and good, but the technology does not have a foot in reality just yet. Nvidia might be there in terms of technological development, so it claims, but that does not mean autonomous cars will be hitting the roads any time soon. Not by a long way.

Firstly, while the processors might be there, the information is not. Companies like Google have been doing a fantastic job at creating mapping solutions, but the details is still not there for every single location on the planet. Until you can accurately map every single scenario and location a car may or may not end up in, it is impossible to state with 100% accuracy that Level 5 autonomous vehicles are achievable.

Secondly, to live the autonomous dream, a smart city is necessary. To optimize driving conditions, the car will need to receive data from the traffic lights to understand the flow of vehicles, and also any unusual circumstances. To ensure safety and performance, connectivity will have to be ubiquitous. The smart city dream is miles away, and therefore the autonomous vehicles dream is even further.

Thirdly, even if the technology is there, everything else isn’t. Regulations are not set up to support autonomous vehicles, neither is the insurance industry or the judicial system. If an autonomous vehicle is involved in a fatal incident, who get prosecuted? Do individuals need to be insured if they are asleep in the car? There are many unanswered questions.

Finally, when will we accept autonomous vehicles? Some people are incapable of sitting in a passenger seat while a loved one drives, how will these individuals react to a computer taking charge? Culturally, it might be a long time before the drivers of the world are comfortable handing control over to a faceless piece of software.

Nvidia might be shouting the loudest in the race to autonomous vehicles right now, but let’s put things in perspective; it doesn’t actually mean anything.