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Google Introduces Impressive Array Of New Hardware

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Google hosted a much-anticipated hardware event on Wednesday in San Francisco to refresh its premium Pixel line of phones. The company, which is fresh from buying the HTC unit that made the original Pixel, introduced Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL models. In a major push into hardware, Google also announced new versions of Google Home, its smart speaker, including a low-cost model that could be priced below $50. Google also unveiled a new version of Daydream, its VR headset, as well as a new high-end (and very pricey) Chromebook.

Forbes reported the announcements live:

9:05 am Google CEO Sundar Pichai takes the stage and begins by touting Google’s commitment to AI. “It is radically rethinking how computing should work,” Pichai said. “Computers should adapt to how people live their lives,” not the other way around, he adds. Computing will be conversational, ambient and contextual. It’s a unique moment in time, when Google can bring AI, software and hardware together, Pichai says, to lead the way forward. “The rate at which we are seeing progress in AI is amazing,” Pichai adds, highlighting how Google’s latest vision algorithms outperform human vision.

9:20 am Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh takes the stage. He says it’s, you guessed it, “early days” for Google hardware, but the company is off to a good start. “Pixel had a great year,” he says, acknowledging Google didn’t make enough phones to meet demand. But here’s the catch. “The playing field for hardware components is leveling off,” he says. That makes it harder and harder to develop new products each year, and that’s why Google is taking a different approach, he says. “Innovation will happen at the intersection of hardware, software and AI,” he says. “That’s where the big leaps forward will happen in the next 10 years.”

9:30 am Rishi Chandra, head of home products, takes the stage to update Google’s smart speaker line, claims Google has the best voice recognition in the market, in part because it has the most data. That’s allowed Google to create Voice Match, which recognizes the voices of different people in a family, Chandra says. He then introduces Isabelle Olsson, lead designer for Google Home. She introduces Home Mini, a small round speaker that comes in 3 colors. It costs $49 and is available for pre-order today.

9:35 am Yoki Matsuoka, CTO of Nest, is up next to talk about how Google and the Alphabet subsidiary are working together on smart home tech. Here’s one example, the Google assistant can activate a smart TV to show you what’s happening on a Nest smart camera, say to monitor your fromt door. Here’s another. with a single command, “Hey Google, Goodnight” arms the security system, tells you what’s on your agenda tomorrow and sets your alarm. “This really simplifies my life,” Matsuoka says.

9:45 am Chandra introduces Google Home Max, a high end smart speaker that’s clearly aimed at competing with Apple’s upcoming smart speaker. It comes equipped with Smart Sound, a new tech that adapts the sound to fit your context, for instance, raising the volume when the dishwasher is running. “It’s about delivering consistent, crisp sound experiences. Available in December, for $399. Watch out Apple.

9:55 am As expected, Google introduces a high end Chromebook called Pixelbook, with a 13.2-inch screen. Thin, convertible into tablet mode, 16GB RAM and 10 hours of battery life. If there is no wifi, it instantly tethers through your phone. Google Assistant comes built-in. It comes with a pen/stylus — circle a photo of an artist, and the Google Assistant will tell you who it is. Google Play smartphone apps run on the Pixelbook. Snap is working with Google to bring a “large screen” experience to the Pixelbook. Here’s the catch. It’s not cheap. Available in 3 configurations, starting at $999, with the pen for an extra $99. Available in the US, Canada and the UK. Pre-orders start today and in stores on Halloween.

10:05 am Mario Queiroz, head of Pixel phones, is now on stage for the main act, the Google Pixel 2, which comes in 5-inch and 6-inch XL versions. Lots of goodies: OLED display in the small version, which comes in 3 colors, including Kind of Blue, black and white. Larger version comes with a slightly curved display that goes all the way to the edges, in black or black and white. Here’s the obligatory dig at Apple. Both devices have the same capabilities. “We don’t set aside feature for the larger device,” Queiroz says.

10:18 am Google execs demo a bunch of software/hardware updates that work with the Pixel 2. You can squeeze the phone to invoke the Google Assistant. The Assistant integrates between the Pixel and Home, so you can send messages like “I’ll be home in 10 minutes” that will get played on your Google Home. Finally Google has notification dots on its apps. Google Lens help you understand the world. It can “read” emails, addresses and phone numbers; it can give you a movie or book review by “looking” at a poster or cover; it recognizes historic monuments. A preview of Lens is coming to Pixel users. Google Lens also comes with AR capabilities that let you bring virtual objects into real places through the screen; or virtual characters into real scenes.

10:30 am Queiroz is back to tout the Pixel 2’s camera. The excellent camera from the Pixel 1 had a DXO score (an industry standard for the amount of information captured by a camera’s lens and how well the lens and camera perform together) of 89. The new one has a score of 98 — the highest score of any smartphone camera. It’s a 12 MP, f 1.8 camera. It comes with a portrait mode that creates depth of field effects on both the main and selfie cameras. A new thing called “fused image stabilization” that improves the stability of videos. Pixel 2 users get free storage for all their photos and videos in the highest resolution. The results look pretty amazing, but we’ll have to test it in real life to know for sure. Pixel 2 starts at $649 and Pixel 2 XL $849, available in six countries in Australia, Canada, Germany India UK and US with preorder today. For a limited time, Google will throw in a Google Home Mini for free.

10:40 am After introducing updates to Google Daydream, the VR headset, Google moves quickly to its latest shot at Apple: A set of premium wireless headphones Google Pixel Buds designed to work and pair easily with the Pixel. Google’s AI is built in, you can speak to the headset in one language, like Swedish, and the phone will translate in real time into English. The demo worked flawlessly. It works in 40 languages. Available in 3 colors, for $159, with preorders starting today and availability in November.

10:45 am Google pulls a “one more thing.” Google Clips, a small, clippable/wearable camera that could well portend the end of struggling action camera maker GoPro. It’s packed with AI to make cool images. It will sell for $249 and will be available soon. Osterloh comes back on stage for a wrap up of the #MadeByGoogle line of products.

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Apple Is Donating 9 Million Masks To Combat The Coronavirus

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Topline: Apple will donate 9 million N95 protective masks to combat the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, making Apple one of several California tech companies pitching in as hospitals across the country report a shortage of protective gear.

  • Pence thanked Apple for agreeing to donate 9 million N95 respirator masks to healthcare facilities across the country during a press briefing on Tuesday.
  • Pence’s remarks come after Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted over the weekend the company was “working to help source supplies for healthcare providers fighting COVID-19” and “donating millions of masks for health professionals in the US and Europe,” but did not offer more specifics.
  • N95 respirators are masks that form a protective seal around a wearer’s mouth, filtering  out at least 95% of particles in the air, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which makes them necessary to protect healthcare workers from being exposed to the disease from patients.
  • Facebook has also said it is donating its stockpile of 720,000 masks purchased during the California wildfires last year, which degraded the air quality in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Forbes asking if all of the donated masks were stockpiled because of the wildfires or if the company got them from somewhere else.

Chief critic: Teddy Schleifer, a reporter at Recode, wrote that health systems shouldn’t rely on the generosity of big tech companies to make up for the failures of the federal government. 

“But there is a risk in relying on corporate philanthropy—rather than the government—in solving this problem. For starters, it depends on the voluntary generosity of these companies to deal with an unprecedented emergency, an altruism that could vanish at any time,” he wrote.

Crucial quote: “And I spoke today, and the president spoke last week, with Tim Cook of Apple. And at this moment in time Apple went to their store houses and is donating 9 million N95 masks to healthcare facilities all across the country and to the national stockpile,” Pence said.

Key background: Apple is one of several California tech companies to give away N95 masks. In addition to Facebook, Salesforce, Tesla and IBM have also announced mask donations.

News peg: Doctors and nurses are sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough masks to protect healthcare workers. Not only does inadequate protective gear put important frontline health workers at risk, public health experts say, any situation endangering medical personnel may only further depletes the U.S. health system which already doesn’t have enough capacity to handle a surge in cases. State officials in New York and Illinois have criticized President Donald Trump for not stepping in to force companies to manufacture masks or allocate masks from private companies to ensure that states don’t outbid each other for the same supplies.

Rachel Sandler, Forbes Staff, Breaking News

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Video Games Are Being Played At Record Levels As The Coronavirus Keeps People Indoors

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Topline: With school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies and lockdowns taking place in the U.S. as a result of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, gaming has seen higher engagement, especially over this past weekend.

  • Steam, the most popular digital PC gaming marketplace, reached new heights Sunday, drawing a record 20,313,451 concurrent users to the 16-year-old service, according to third-party database SteamDB.
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, released by Steam-owner Valve in 2012, seems to be the top beneficiary of the increased engagement, breaking it’s all-time peak on Sunday with 1,023,2290 concurrent players, topping its previous peak last month by a million, which itself beat the record set in April 2016.
  • Like other esports, CS:GO has had to cancel events due to the virus, particularly the Intel Extreme Masters in Katowice earlier this month, though its peak viewership reached over a million, making it one of the most watched tournaments in the esports’ history.
  • Activision Blizzard’s new free-to-play battle royale spinoff Call of Duty: Warzone, launched March 10 on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, is also likely benefiting, drawing in a staggering 15 million in three days, besting the record 10 million in three days by last year’s battle royale sensation Apex Legends.
  • These new heights follows similar effects of the virus on China and Italy: Telecom Italia’s CEO told Bloomberg it saw a 70% increase in traffic over its landline network, with Fortnite playing a significant part, while Chinese live-streaming service Douyu experienced increased viewership of the country’s most popular games, according to market analyst Niko Partners.
  • While gaming was considered “recession proof” during the 2008 market crash, stocks aren’t immune to the current historic drops: software developers like Activision Blizzard are facing a 9% decrease in price year-to-date, while hardware companies that rely on Chinese manufacturing like Nintendo are seeing bigger drops of 24%.

What To Watch For: If these records keep rising as the closings and lockdowns continue. Arriving this week is Nintendo’s long-awaited Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Switch console, a relaxing “life-simulator” that’s set to have a big day with many fans not-so-jokingly asking Nintendo to launch early.

Surprising Fact: Plague Inc., a game that tasks players in creating a virus that wipes out humanity, surged in popularity late January, becoming the top-paid game on the Chinese app store at one point, but the game has now been removed in China at the direction of the government.

Further Reading: So You’re Suddenly Working From Home And Want To Try Gaming? Here’s How To Get Started.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Innovation


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Amazon Hoping To Hire 100,000 New Employees To Deal With Coronavirus Demand

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Topline: Amazon announced Monday that it would be opening 100,000 new full-time and part-time positions to deal with increased buying demand as people practice social distancing during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

  • The company will also increase pay by $2 in the U.S. from its current $15 an hour, £2 in the UK and €2 in Europe for those working in fulfillment centers, transportation services, stores or people making deliveries, amounting to a total of $350 million.
  • Amazon last Friday shared that the increase in online commerce has unsurprisingly resulted in shortages for household essentials and delays in shipment times.
  • Monday’s statement also noted that “We continue to consult with medical and health experts, and take all recommended precautions in our buildings and stores to keep people healthy. We’ve taken measures to promote social distancing in the workplace and taken on enhanced and frequent cleaning, to name just a few.”
  • Last week, Amazon told all of its employees to consider working from home if they could, according to CNBC; for its fulfillment centers and delivery services, it also launched a $25 million relief fund that lets workers diagnosed with the coronavirus apply for  grants equal to two weeks pay, as well as unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees until the end of March.
  • Amazon currently employs 250,000 people at 110 fulfillment centers.

News Peg: According to Johns Hopkins, 181,200 people have been infected with the coronavirus, with 7,115 deaths reported. School closures, lockdowns and curfews have been put in place to promote social distancing, with the White House today recommending to avoid groups of more than 10 people.

Matt Perez, Forbes Staff, Games

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