May 20, 2013

Google I/O 2013 Trip Report

Since a handful of people have asked me about Google I/O, and it isn't a conference that a lot of academics go to, I thought I'd share my experience with this group.

First off - why did I go?  The answer is because I didn't go to CHI so I wasn't worn out, and because Google asked.  They offered me a $300 ticket (compared to the normal $900 which is also very hard to get).  The primary reason I wanted to go was to experience the silicon valley big company event. I was interested of course to learn about Google's view of modern web technology, but mostly I just wanted to feel what this kind of event was like. (And full disclosure, I have research funding from Google.)

So, first let me comment on that feeling.  It was pretty much what I expected - and totally surreal. It was VERY well organized with hundreds of Googlers and staff helping everywhere.  Academics were treated specially (with a short special line, a special floor at an evening party, an invite to Google's SF offices for a tour, etc.). And it was seriously geeky. I was a distinct minority - caucasian and old.  There was very little gray hair and very few women. And a lot of Asians of all kinds. The keynote was a lot like a rock concert. Super crowded - intense spirit. Thousands of people holding up their phones to take pictures of the screens showing fluid blobby animations to rock music before the start. And every one yelling a count down to the start (illustrated on the displays.)  I almost laughed at that part - I guess you can tell my age. I enjoyed it, but just couldn't get *that* worked up about it :) The 3 hour keynote (and all the talks) was very well orchestrated and presented. I really enjoyed hearing Larry Page give his talk. Unlike the other highly scripted talks, his was clearly quite heartfelt. He was doing his best to step out of his demanding role and relate to his techy audience, and I think he succeeded. (Of course, cynics could argue that he was just very good at scripting the feeling of non-scriptedness...)  He largely talked about the importance of being innovative and doing good - and stop the cat fighting that tech companies do. And then without any warning, he took 30 minutes of questions and there was a pretty interesting discussion - probably my favorite part of the whole conference.

There was, of course, excellent free food (breakfast and lunch). Free coffee. Free snack area. And a free Chromebook Pixel (retail $1,450) - meaning they gave away something like $10m worth of them. This event was not a money maker! At least not directly. They of course spent 3 days exciting 6,000 developers about using Google tools to help pursue Google's vision. You may have heard that Google is making their interfaces simpler - removing more stuff, predicting more stuff, and using more of your personal data. Some people will no doubt find that very scary and objectionable. But clearly lots of people (including, I admit, me) find it an acceptable trade-off.  And their demos were astoundingly good. For any of you that remember Microsoft's painfully embarrassing voice recognition demos a few years back - Google ACED them. There was 100% recognition rate of live demos of the speaker talking into an actual phone, speaking fairly complex natural language at regular rates in a very noisy room of 6,000 people.  And if you remember "Put That There" from 1979, then it was all the more impressive when they had good pronoun connectivity back to previous utterances.  Expect to see a lot more voice recognition built into every Google product.  (And no more clicking - soon you'll be able to just say "ok google" and start talking when most google products are open.)

Glass was a big deal (but hardly mentioned in the keynote).  Hundreds of people were wearing them. There was a place to try them out (which I did). And a number of talks on Glass (videos available for many of them.) Personally, I find Glass intriguing - but in its current form I think it is unlikely to be used outside of niche areas and geeks (beyond a startup phase). I predict they will be like bluetooth headsets. They will probably be everywhere next year until people realize that it is too annoying to wear something all the time (and charge them, etc) for the infrequent times when the value add over pulling out your phone is worth it (again, except for the geeks and niche uses). OTOH, if the cost was much less (i.e., it was built invisibly into regular glasses, had inductive charging, etc.) then that value calculus could be very different.

And then there were 2.5 days of talks, which I got somewhat bored of by the second day. Two of the talks I most wanted to see were overfull and I couldn't get in. It was very crowded and difficult to move around between sessions. And many of the others were just too deep about topics I wasn't that interested in (i.e., APIs for every Google product). It would be greatly rich for people building web startups using all of those tools - but academic research tends to be much more selective. And when there is something I actually want to use, it is easy enough to learn it with public resources.

So, bottom line, I am glad I went for the overall experience. But I'm not sure that I would recommend it to most academics (especially since most of the talks are available online.) But it was fun. And Google probably succeeded in their biggest goal which is that I left feeling more positive about Google than when I arrived.

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