Android Intelligence Analysis

4 Google Assistant additions worth watching

These upcoming Assistant improvements could make Google's virtual helper infinitely more helpful.

Google Assistant
Google

Google Assistant may not be perfect, but goodness gracious, is it ever growing.

Seems rarely a month goes by these days where Google doesn't announce some new capability for its platform-defying (and, some would argue, platform-creating) virtual assistant. But Assistant's most significant growth spurt may still be ahead of us.

A handful of new and upcoming Assistant features really jump out at me as having the potential to collectively catapult the service's utility to some impressive new heights. Only time will tell if they end up being as impressive in the real world as they seem in theory, of course, but these four features are absolutely worth keeping an eye on:

1. Assistant Ambient Mode

Once upon a time, Google came up with a groundbreaking service called Google Now. It brought Google's unique knowledge of both the world and our lives together to create a one-of-a-kind feed filled with genuinely helpful information — cards that were almost eerily catered to exactly what was relevant to any one of us at any given moment.

Google Now is one of the countless Google projects that got abandoned before its time, but Assistant has little by little picked up many of its lingering pieces — and now, it looks like Assistant could effectively bring a taste of Google Now onto screens everywhere.

A newly announced Google Assistant Ambient Mode delivers a Now-reminiscent info panel onto the displays of Android devices whenever they're docked or charging. It's kind of like an alternate version of what you see on a Smart Display — and it could truly transform the usefulness of an otherwise idle product.

Google Assistant Ambient Mode Google

For now, the Ambient Mode is launching only on a limited set of phones and tablets, but that's pretty typical for Google to do with an eye-catching new entity. It'd be surprising if the feature didn't eventually reach more devices and become standard — possibly for Chromebooks, too, where open-source development has already been hinting at a mysterious new "Ambient Mode" (hmm...).

If practically every device is a Smart Display — and if the Smart Display manages to get just a teensy bit smarter — we could have some really interesting possibilities on our hands.

2. Assistant call-holding

This one isn't official yet, but it's still plenty intriguing: Reports suggest Google is working on a new phone-based feature that'd let you tap a button to tell Assistant to take over a call when you're placed on hold. Assistant would then do the boring work for you and alert you as soon as an allegedly living, breathing human returns to the line to irritate you further.

The feature is described as being something specifically for the upcoming Pixel 4, but these sorts of Assistant-connected features generally have a way of debuting with new Pixel phones and then making their way to more Android devices soon after.

Regardless, it's a service I think most of us would happily accept, given the opportunity.

3. Proactive Assistant notifications in Chrome OS

You know how Google Assistant is able to give you proactive notifications — things like a heads-up about traffic to a place you're likely to be going or a reminder about a bill based on activity in your inbox?

That's another Google Now carryover that took a solid couple years to make its way into Assistant — and now, it looks like it may be moseying over to the land of Chrome OS next. Work in Google's open-source Chrome code reveals ample progress on an Assistant-connected "proactive suggestions" system for Chromebooks, and while the specifics of the implementation are still unclear, it's plainly apparent that something is in the works.

Useful information is useful information, and having this same sort of proactive intelligence spread to the desktop would represent a pretty significant progression — not to mention a nice added step in the never-ending alignment of Google's two primary platforms.

4. A super-speedy Assistant

Back at Google's big developers' conference in May, the company talked about the "next generation" of Assistant — a retooled version of the technology that shifts all the processing onto the local device and consequently allows Assistant to deliver responses up to 10 times faster than what we're used to seeing.

The demos showed how the new and improved Assistant would let you perform complex strings of commands on your phone simply by speaking — in a way that might be even easier and more efficient than the regular ol' tap-oriented method most of us still rely on:

It's futuristic, to say the least — and while it's smart to be skeptical over how well any of this will work outside of a carefully controlled demo, it's certainly all appealing.

Since May, though, we've heard next to nothing about this next-generation Assistant. Well, Google says that technology will be making its debut with its new Pixel model in the fall — y'know, the one that's expected to arrive in about a month (maybe you've heard a little somethin' about it?). That means the wait is almost over. And here, too, it'd be quite the shock if this didn't make its way to other Android devices sometime not terribly long after the Pixel 4's launch.

When you put the pieces together and consider this "next-gen" model alongside those other pending improvements, Assistant suddenly starts to look like a pretty different beast from the limited action-and-answer-providing system we know today. The only question left is if Google can actually deliver on all of these still-unproven concepts — and that's a question even our favorite virtual voice can't yet answer.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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