IFA is billed as the world’s largest consumer electronics and home appliances tradeshow, so it's fitting that the closing address for the 2010 event was delivered by the CEO of one of the biggest players in the technology space – Dr. Eric Schmidt of Google Inc. He discussed the age of the smartphone, cloud computing, plus some tasty samples of Google TV and what's just around the corner for the Android platform including a game-changing tool for mobile speech translation called "conversation mode"... read on for a summary of the key points.
Cloudy with a chance of smartphones
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Dr. Schmidt outlined the staggering growth that's expected in the smartphone handset market. One billion will grow to three or four billion in the next four years and all of them will rely on the cloud to perform an increasingly impressive array of functions. These smartphones are driving technology. Android is shipping 200,000 activations per day and the mobile web is growing eight times faster than the desktop web was 10 years ago but the trick, according to Dr. Schmidt, is to keep the focus on the human factor ... and to make it all happen FAST.
Part of this "augmented humanity" model is to improve search... building a "bridge between what you search for and what you mean." Given that mobile search is often based on location, this will be played out with tools that give you information that the machine knows you are interested in, like pointing out architectural highlights or historical points of interest as you wander down the street.
Taking speech recognition to the next level – now
Now the fun part. Hugo Barra, Product Management Director at Google, kicked off the demonstrations with some examples of what we can expect from upgraded voice recognition technology in the next few months.
Introduced two years ago, Google voice search is a fast growing area with 25 percent of Android search in the U.S. now being done via voice. Barro demonstrated very fast voice searching and "voice actions" including impressive speech to text tools. This was also applied to searches that are not specific like "Navigate to museum with Egyptian stuff" – in this case the app located collated location with information on museums in the area to come up with an answer.
This technology has been promising to change the landscape for several years but the performance has lagged behind the expectation. After seeing today's demo I'm convinced that its time has come ... the days of button pushing are well and truly numbered.
Google translate "conversations"
"Conversations mode" is set to launch in the next few months and it's a showstopper.
The scenario demonstrated goes like this. You're an English speaker in Germany and you want to buy a pair of shoes. Neither you or the shoe salesman have any knowledge of each others' language. Using the smartphone app you can speak into the handset in English and have a spoken translation in seconds. The reply is conversely translated and it becomes possible to have a workable conversation in which you quickly establish the size color and price of the shoes you want to buy.
Again, the notion has been with us for some time and it's easy to see the huge benefits this offers – for starters you won't go shopping for purple sneakers and end up with snakeskin boots.
Its effectiveness comes down to two things – speed and accuracy. Google's demo showed both, although it wasn't without its problems – it took three goes for the German - English translation of "what color" to come through correctly, but it seems well on its way to being very workable. Anyone who has used Google Translate over the last few years will have noticed improvements in the accuracy of the results which bodes well for the shift to the smartphone arena – the percentage of hilarious results are likely to drop (but we're sure there will still be a few laughs).
The big crowd at the keynote was also given a demo of Google's take on Internet TV – called, not surprisingly, Google TV. Also planned for launch in the next few months in the U.S., Google TV is designed to integrate the TV and the web seamlessly. Android and the Android app store will be rolled into these products, and Android-powered smartphones as well as the iPhone can be used as remote controls for GoogleTV.
The initial launch will be on three devices – a Sony HDTV and Blu-ray player and a Logitech set-top box that connects to your existing TV.
What you get is the web at the push of a button as well as regular TV and cross platform search tools. Video is rendered to full screen using hardware acceleration in the device and you can also make your TV into a giant digital photo frame using slideshow mode with photos uploaded to sites like Fiickr or Facebook.
There's no word as yet on when Google TV will reach Europe and other markets. Stay tuned for plenty more on this subject as the launch approaches.
Too good to be true?
Of course, the downside with cloud computing is that it's dependent on your access to the network. The effectiveness of mobile tools in particular is dependent on where you are in the world and what kind of access you are able to get. If you are in the right place, things are certainly looking rosy as Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology with its promised 50 Mbps speeds is on the way.
The full keynote address can be viewed at the IFA site. Skip through to the 28 minute mark of the final keynote video to see the conversations translation demo – great stuff ... if it lives up to the demo, I'll be making good use of it at next year's IFA.