Paying for Photo Storage Is Over, and Other News from Google I/O

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During yesterday's keynote address for its annual developer conference in San Francisco, Google unveiled a slew of new features, products and initiatives related to its growing ecosystem of software and hardware. And, as usual, it was a smorgasbord. From a major overhaul of the Android operating system to a new version of the company's cardboard virtual reality viewer, that now works with iPhones, there was a lot to digest. There were also some dishes worth skipping, unless you're terribly interested in iterative software improvements to smart watches. Here are the announcements from I/O 2015 that could make the biggest impact on the tech world, and the world at large.

Google Photos: Paying for Photo Storage Is Over
The downside of ubiquitous smartphone cameras is that we use them, all the time. And while most phones are designed to be synced regularly to a computer, where photos and other memory-hogging files can be transferred and picked through later, the reality isn't as tidy — phones routinely go un-synced, and simply fill up with photos. Apple's answer has been to offer incredibly handy, but unreasonably expensive cloud storage, so you can back up images (and other data) online, and access them from a variety of devices. Other companies offer similar services, but don't waste your time learning about them, because Google just destroyed everyone. The Google Photos app gives you unlimited storage for photos and videos, which you can access via Android or iOS devices, or on the Web. If you haven't thanked Google yet, you probably should. Remember when Gmail was first launched, and its effectively unlimited free storage annihilated the paid e-mail business model? Google Photos is an even bigger gift, considering that it not only provides a home for our collective glut of photos, but provides effective search tools to find the ones you care about. Along with viewing images in a timeline, you can search your entire library by person, place or thing. You can also use it for light editing, but it's the access, organization and searchability that makes Google Photos the latest in the company's services that feels more like a public utility than a product. Also, it's available right now.

Google Now On Tap: Voice Search Is Getting Smarter
It's possible, and maybe even advisable, that you don't currently care about voice-based computing. Siri and Google Now have always worked better in bouncy commercials than in real life, where tapping out a few words is usually preferable to getting angry at your phone's dumb artificial intelligence. But despite it's annoying name, Google Now On Tap is a significant step towards realizing the relatively untapped potential of this technology. The key here is context. Now, when you pose a question to your Android phone or tablet, it will assume you're talking about whatever you're looking at or listening to. If you're reading an actress's tweet, and wondering about her filmography, you can say, "Ok Google. What movies has she been in?" Now On Tap will bring up a web search relevant to that actress. This feature — which is currently Android-only — can also do non-voice-based things, like bring up context-relevant "Cards," when you hold down the home button. These are organized nuggets of information, which might be more efficient to access in some situations, and less aggravating to nearby humans, than constantly yapping into your phone. But the smarter and more intuitive voice interfaces get, the more useful they'll be, and the more we'll be able to casually order around our computers, cars, and, one can only hope, domestic robots. And smart improvements to this space, like Google Now On Tap, are how we'll get there.

GoPro's VR Camera Rig: There Will Be More Virtual Reality Content
Google announced a partnership with industry-leading action camera maker GoPro, to create a 360-degree, 16-camera rig designed to capture footage worthy of viewing with virtual reality interfaces. This is not a consumer product. Don't expect to start memorializing first baby steps or college graduations in glorious VR. The first rigs are expensive enough that Google isn't even assigning a price tag, and they'll be distributed to select YouTube filmmakers. The goal is to generate more VR content for YouTube, which you could watch on a boring old regular screen, clicking and swiping to see various additional angles. But really, this content is for VR rigs, such as the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. Google announced a new version of that low-cost setup, but until there's enough VR footage to justify mainstream adoption of one interface or another, minor product improvements are a moot point. By getting portable VR camera rigs into the hands of filmmakers, and providing the back-end software to turn that 360-degree footage into true VR, Google is giving all of us more reasons to believe in the second coming of virtual reality. Participants in the early access program will have six months to create VR content, with the public getting its hands on some version of the rig in the unspecified future.

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Offline Chrome and Maps: Bad Data Connections Won't Hurt So Bad
If you're lucky enough to live in an area with rock-solid data service, it's easy to forget about that those in remote rural areas, developing regions, or just unfortunate suburban dead zones. So allow us to celebrate the fact that Google is planning to roll out offline search results and turn-by-turn directions for Maps later this year. The company demonstrated the feature on a phone in airplane mode, though without explaining how this piece of wizardry is possible. Google also said that Chrome will let you save pages for offline viewing, and the browser will require 80 percent less data. That translates to a speed-boost for devices with solid internet connections, but for phones drifting in and out of data networks, it could mean the difference between a successful page load, and yet another error page apology. Whether Google actually cares about the little guys, or just wants to appear to, we'll take all the charity we can get.