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Google Has Big Plans for Google Now


Google's virtual assistant is gaining traction in both intelligence and notoriety. But what does Mountain View have in store for Google Now?

As the war between Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) mobile platforms rages on, factions on both sides have conceded the areas in which the other is victorious.

Android users have (or should) come to terms with the fact that Apple's tightly controlled OS has given way to greater UI consistency and uniformity among its apps, as well as far less instances of fragmentation. Concurrently, iPhone fans must (or should) admit that Android allows for better customization and control over how its phones perform, leading to superior functionality between the way apps can "talk" to one another.

And when it comes to virtual assistants, Google Now is the more qualified candidate.

With the most powerfully ubiquitous search engine in its holster, Google Now is a step ahead of Siri, not only in terms of delivering information at a quicker clip, but also knowing what the user needs before he or she asks. By automatically displaying simple, at-a-glance cards ranging from the weather to personal reminders to traffic reports, Google Now is arguably Android's best and most helpful feature. And considering the recent addition of the Siri-like conversation that allows users to deliver commands in multiple stages (see Google Search Adopts iPhone's Most 'User Friendly' Feature), Android's voice-activated system is getting even more versatile.

But what does Google have in store for its virtual assistant? Google Engineering Director Scott Huffman offered a glimpse of where Google Now is headed during the LeWeb conference in Paris earlier this month.

Overall, Mountain View's goal for Google Now remains the same, and that is to create the very best virtual assistant and to make "all your tasks as you go through the day simpler and quicker." But by doing so, Google Now must expand the reach of just phones and tablets into new areas, making the virtual assistant about as ubiquitous as the search engine that powers it.

One of the first areas? Cars.

As it stands, voice automation in cars is still an ugly mess filled with clunky, proprietary UI with non-uniform commands. But Huffman believes your vehicle is Google Now's next step in providing function and information in a quick and clean manner. In fact, given the strides Google has made in relaying requests in an audible fashion, the setup might not even need a screen to work.

Another place we might see Google Now flourish is the home.

It's been two and a half years since Google cruelly teased the future, as it saw it, in home automation at the I/O conference in 2011. Dubbed Android@Home, the system allowed users to control everything from lights to speakers from their phones. Unfortunately, there's been hardly any mention of Android@Home since then, despite home automation and the "Internet of Things" becoming a hot topic in light of Nest's line thermostats and smoke detectors. (See: Why Android@Home Could Be Bigger Than Google Glass)

However, Huffman sees the living room as the next stage of Google Now's evolution. With a simple "OK Google" vocal command -- possibly working in conjunction with NFC or Bluetooth low energy detecting the user's position in the home -- functions like having your music follow you from room to room by switching on nearby speakers could be one of the many things that could be accomplished in the next phase of Google Now.

But Google Now's future also depends on the advancement of its existing core features, two of which are its integration with Gmail and its ability to hold a conversation. Currently, a one-on-one dialogue with a virtual assistant is still a primitive affair. But Google's Knowledge Graph -- along with a greater ability to detect at-a-glance information from Gmail -- is helping to evolve Android's understanding of conversational commands and tone.

Although we're probably more than a few years away from achieving deep and meaningful relationships with our virtual assistants like in Spike Jonze's latest film Her, Google Now could soon begin a journey into the Uncanny Valley and become unsettlingly lifelike in the not-too-distant future.

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