Google touts AI, machine learning as it unveils Pixel 2

Rick Osterloh, Google's vice president of hardware, speaks during Wednesday's media event.

Google’s upcoming Pixel 2 boasts some impressive specs, as expected, but the company was much more interested in talking about user experience on Wednesday than it was in boasting of the phone’s technical prowess.

The online search giant trotted out two versions of the second-generation phone during its highly anticipated media event in San Francisco: the 5-inch Pixel 2, which sports an OLED display and will start at $649; and the Pixel 2 XL, which features a 6-inch, pOLED 18:9 display and starts at $849.

Both phones are powered by Android 8.0 Oreo and water-resistant, and both feature improved cameras over the first-generation Pixel, which received rave reviews for its camera technology when it was introduced last year.

The Pixel 2 is available for preorders but won’t ship until Nov. 15. Verizon has exclusive U.S. carrier rights to sell the phone, but it will be available unlocked through Google and other channels.

T-Mobile wasted no time in responding, though, offering a $325 rebate (in the form of a MasterCard) to users who buy a Pixel 2 and switch one voice line to T-Mobile’s service.

The phone was just one of a half-dozen new gadgets Google showcased during the event, however. It introduced the Google Home Mini speaker; the Pixelbook; Pixel Bud earphones; an updated Daydream View virtual reality headset; and a small digital camera branded Google Clips.

The company’s focus wasn’t entirely on hardware, however, but also on software and artificial intelligence. And the latter two factors have become especially crucial in the smartphone market, suggested Rick Osterloh, Google’s senior vice president of hardware.

Smartphone features like lightning-fast processors and eye-catching displays have become “table stakes,” Osterloh said. So software, artificial intelligence and optimal user experiences are becoming key differentiators.

“We’re really proud of how well the PIxel did for our first-generation smartphone in such a competitive space,” Osterloh said. “To be honest, it’s going to be tougher and tougher for people to develop new, exciting products each year, because that’s no longer the timetable for big leaps forward in hardware alone.”

Indeed, Google executives hit on a list of features and use cases to hammer home those themes. The Pixel 2 can automatically initiate a text to family members telling them that the user is on the way home from work, for instance, and speakers demonstrated augmented reality using content from “Star Wars” and the TV show “Stranger Things.”

“Smartphones might be reaching parity on their specs,” Osterloh said, “but as we just hear from (Google CEO Sindar Pichai), we’re seeing huge breakthroughs in the kinds of experiences we’re able to deliver to users. … It all starts with reimagining hardware from the inside out, with AI and machine learning.”