Virtual reality and artificial intelligence, or "machine learning," will be among the focal points at the Google I/O developers conference, kicking off Wednesday. That has spurred speculation that Google is getting ready to release a virtual-reality device to compete with Facebook's new Oculus Rift headset, as well as the Samsung's Gear VR and the Vive from HTC and Valve.
"2016 is already the year of VR," writes CNET's Sarah Mitroff. "[Google] has shown off Cardboard, its low-cost portable VR viewer initiative, for the last two years, and this year we're certain to see new developments."
Reporters and bloggers from around the world are attending, ensuring that everything the company unveils will also be featured in stories, pictures and video delivered to a vast audience of consumers. The three-day showcase also attracts thousands of computer programmers, giving Google an opportunity to convince them why they should design applications and other services that work with its gadgets and an array of software that includes the Chrome Web browser and Android operating system for mobile devices.
Android powers about 80 percent of the world's smartphones, largely because Google gives away the software for free to device makers. Google can afford to do that because it designs Android to feature its search engine, maps and other digital services, giving it more opportunities to show the digital ads that generate most of its revenue.
But Apple's iPhone carries more cachet with affluent consumers and often introduces features that Android copies. Apple will hold a similar conference in June to unveil its fall software plans.
Google is holding this year's conference, called Google I/O, at an amphitheater a few blocks from its Mountain View, California, headquarters. With more than 6,000 seats, the amphitheater could potentially accommodate a larger crowd than the San Francisco venue where Google held I/O in past years.
Google's bare-bones entry into the still-nascent field of virtual reality came two years ago when it unveiled a cheap headset made out of cardboard. The company may now be poised to get more serious, given far more sophisticated options available for sale. Analysts are touting virtual reality, a technology that casts its users into artificial, three-dimensional worlds, as one of the industry's most promising areas for growth.
Artificial intelligence, a term used to describe efforts to develop software that acts and behaves more like humans, has been a focal point of Google's for years. Progress in the field has helped Google's search engine comprehend the intent of people's inquiries more quickly and vastly improved the comprehension and responsiveness of its voice-recognition services.
Analysts have speculated that Google might tap into its artificial-intelligence research to introduce a virtual-assistant product that could be set up in homes to help people manage their lives and get information more quickly. Such a device would represent Google's response to the growing popularity of Amazon's Echo, a cylinder-like device equipped with speakers and an Internet-connected microphone that enables a virtual assistant called Alexa to interact with its users.
CNET reports that while details about the system are still sketchy, it's believed to go by the internal name of "Chirp." The device would respond to voice commands so users can easily get answers about the weather, search the Web and control their music.