It’s been a while since Google showed up in a big way at CES. The company’s always in Vegas, of course: execs hold meetings with carriers and partners, and the halls of the convention center practically overflow with devices. For the last few years, that’s been enough for Google.
At CES 2018, however, Google’s back in a big way. Its massive installation in the convention center parking lot includes a twirling slide and a ball pit. The company wallpapered the Vegas monorail in Google Assistant ads. You can barely turn around without seeing a “Hey Google” billboard reminding you of the power of the company’s voice-activated bot. The efforts feel like metaphor: Google Assistant is everywhere in Vegas because Google wants desperately for Assistant to be everywhere in your gadgets.
Google even announced big news at CES for the first time in a while. It’s all about Assistant, of course, Google’s attempt to get its virtual helper into more places and devices. The newest new thing is a line of “Smart Displays” built by JBL, LG, Lenovo, and Sony. These are dedicated Assistant devices, much like the Google Home, except these have screens as well.
They’re Google’s version of the Echo Show: able to show recipes, make video calls, watch movies, and the like. Most of the interaction still happens through the Assistant, but these devices can show you things now. Google’s perfectly suited to make a device like this work: a smart display can show off the awesome search power inside Google Photos, the Duo video-chat service, and even Google Maps, unlike any other device. Plus, unlike the Echo Show, which Google seems to be intentionally hamstringing for its own gain, these Smart Displays can play YouTube videos. (More smart displays will be announced later, the company says.)
Google’s also expanding its program for Assistant-optimized headphones, with new devices that use the same super-quick voice response as the new Bose QC35 II. And in the car, Google’s put Assistant into Android Auto, so you can use it to get directions or control your music while you drive. Along with the new categories, Google touted its rapidly growing adoption: Assistant can now control more than 1,500 devices, and you can interact with it through new Android TVs, new smart speakers, and more. These aren’t new features, really, just new and different ways to use Assistant. That’s what Google really needs right now.
Right now, by all accounts, Amazon’s Alexa is winning the virtual assistant battle. It was in hundreds of third-party devices at last year’s CES, and though Amazon doesn’t release specific sales figures beyond the “tens of millions” statement from CEO Jeff Bezos, Echo devices appear to outsell Google Homes by a wide margin. Not only that, Amazon’s working with a growing list of partners to embed Alexa in other devices as well. Google needs to catch up fast if it wants to compete. Its Google Home products—the Home, Mini, and Max—are solid enough, but they’re just the beginning of the ecosystem. The winning virtual assistant will be the one that first achieves ubiquity. It’s about doing everything, and being everywhere. Once people pick an assistant and start using it in their lives, they’re not likely to switch. The stakes are high, and immediate.
Even on the press conference-filled day before CES officially begins, Alexa and Google are already battling for supremacy at the show. Google’s Scott Huffman, the head of all things Assistant, took the stage during LG’s press conference to talk about how Assistant can help manage your home and life. Jabra announced Alexa-capable headphones, Asus put Alexa in a mesh router, and Amazon launched an Alexa integration for all Windows 10 computers. In a conference otherwise filled with impractical, far-future ideas—AR toothbrushes! Robots! Smart fridges!—the battle over the gadgets you talk to might be the most immediately important thing happening at this year’s CES. It’s a wake-word war.