Google is primed to go big at CES again

Last year was the search giant’s first official appearance in years at the massive tech show. With round two, Google looks to make an even bigger splash.

Last year at CES, Google set up a three-story Wonka factory of smart home devices. In a massive booth near the Las Vegas Convention Center, the search giant showed off how its Google Assistant could work with everything from washing machines to miniature train sets. There was a giant, voice-controlled gumball machine full of giveaway devices. A big, blue slide spiraled to the ground.

Elsewhere at the conference, white-suited Google workers greeted people in booths across the show floor, and the company plastered the words “Hey Google” — one of the trigger phrases for the Google Assistant — over the Las Vegas Monorail.

The message was clear: After years of laying low at the world’s largest tech show, Google had finally arrived at CES. The company is primed to go even bigger at this year’s show, which starts next week.

Before last year’s CES, the company had happily stayed on the sidelines and let its manufacturing partners, including Samsung and LG, grab all the attention. Now Google is using the trade show to trumpet its software and hardware, complete with an official stage.

That’s because CES has become an important staging ground for the tech giant as it pushes devices to consumers that compete against the likes of Amazon, Apple and Samsung. In the next three years, Google’s hardware division — which includes its Google Home smart speakers, Nest thermostats and Chromecast streaming devices — could hit $20 billion in revenue, RBC Capital Markets said last month.

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Google looks to make a big splash again this year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google has staked its future outside of its iconic search homepage. CEO Sundar Pichai has repeatedly said the company is going all out on artificial intelligence — specifically the Google Assistant, a digital helper akin to Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri. Because the market is still so young, Google is hoping it can attract people to its platforms before they get locked into Amazon’s popular Alexa ecosystem.

“This is the Wild West,” said Brian Solis, an analyst with the Altimeter Group. “Google has to move aggressively and swiftly.”

Google still has a lot of catching up to do. Amazon’s Echo devices still dominate the world of smart speakers, with 73 percent of the market. Google’s Home devices come in second with 24 percent, according to a report by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, though the research firm notes Google is “making strides.”

It’s why CES is so important, providing the ideal venue for drumming up enthusiasm for its voice assistant. Last year, Google used CES to unveil four new Assistant-enabled video devices made by Sony, Samsung-owned JBL, LG and Lenovo. This year, Google is also expected to showcase devices made by third-party partners that have the Assistant built in.

And here’s another bit of evidence that Google wants to make an even bigger splash at CES this year: The company’s presence at CES this year will be triple the size it was last year, a Google spokesman said. A glance at a map provided by the Consumer Technology Association, which oversees CES, shows Google’s booth this year dwarfs the one from last year.

Stepping it up

Google took several steps to up its hardware game last year.

In February, Google brought the smart home device maker Nest back under its purview, after it had spent two years as a semi-independent unit under Google’s parent company Alphabet. That allowed Google to integrate the maker of smart thermostats, smoke detectors and security cameras into its overall product line.

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Google set up a spiraling slide at its booth last year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The company has also been steadily expanding its line of Google Home products. In October, Google released the Home Hub — a smart display that can show people recipes or videos. They’re similar to the smart displays the company showed off last CES with vendors like Lenovo and Sony, except with Google-branded hardware this time. Also that month, Google unveiled the latest version of its flagship phone, the Pixel 3. CNET called it “the best Android phone of 2018.”

It wasn’t always that way. Previously, Google’s biggest hardware projects included flops like the Nexus Q streaming device and the controversial Google Glass eyewear. But in 2016, Google hired Rick Osterloh, a former Motorola executive, to lead a new division that took all of Google’s disparate hardware projects and created a cohesive line of products. Now the suite of products includes everything from virtual-reality headsets to Wi-Fi routers.

For Google, the push at CES isn’t just about getting more people to use the Google Assistant, said Avi Greengart, an analyst at GlobalData. It’s part of a larger plan in trying to make Google services and devices central to every aspect of people’s lives, from driving to work in the morning to preparing dinner at home.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive vision,” he said. “They’re not there yet. But no one is.”

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