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Why the Nexus 5 should advance touchless control

Google's anticipated new Android KitKat phone should be capable of always listening for voice commands, and it's also likely to be the new phone that pushes the technology forward.

Will the new Nexus always have its ears open?
Tutto Android

The Android-gossip consensus is that we'll see a Nexus 5 running Android 4.4 KitKatrevealed on Tuesday, yet we've heard of no confirmation or official invites to any unveiling.

Whether the big debut of the next pure Google phone has been pushed back or not, there's one killer feature I expect to see in the next Nexus that hasn't been directly addressed by the multitude of leaks -- the touchless control capability we've already come to know through Motorola's Moto X and latest Droids.

Voice control assistants like Google Now and Apple's Siri didn't revolutionize our relationships with our devices and the wider digital world overnight, but Google continues to play the long game on the concept. With touchless control, Motorola and Google upped the ante in the quest for that holy grail of Silicon Valley buzzwords that means nothing to most normal humans -- frictionless user interaction.

By my estimation, it's no coincidence that Google-owned Motorola rolled out touchless control on its flagship phones in advance of the consumer release of Google Glass. Just as the original iPhone introduced iOS, established a cultural comfort level with touch-based interaction, and paved the way for the success of the iPad and a whole new way of computing, Google surely hopes touchless control will act as a societal primer for a brave new world in which we all walk around communicating and accessing data by talking to our glasses.

A no-brainer?
Given all this, it seems like a no-brainer to me that Google would include touchless control as a key feature in its next reference-design Nexus device. According to Motorola, the secret sauce behind touchless control in the Moto X is its "X8" computing system that features "two low-power cores" that are always listening for the user's voice to give the "OK, Google Now" command to activate it.

Teardowns of the Moto X reveal that the "X8" is essentially a Snapdragon-based custom system on a chip consisting of four GPU cores, a dual-core CPU, and then the two low-power cores. The Snapdragon 800 that the Nexus 5 is rumored to be based on is a different animal, but as GigaOm points out, the hardware should be natively capable of running touchless control.

That's because the Snapdragon 800 has basically incorporated the same always-listening capability that Motorola custom-built into the X8 -- Qualcomm calls it "voice activation." Right now there are three phones on the market running the Snapdragon 800 -- Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, and the LG G2, which is rumored to be what the LG-made Nexus 5 is based on.

The waiting game
On the Note 3, Samsung's S voice is not as impressive as Moto's touchless control; it's built to work best with Samsung's native apps rather than Google's. Sony's Xperia Z Ultra isn't sold by any U.S. carriers, and Sony's own marketing makes no mention of voice activation capabilities, while the LG G2 uses third-party software called Voice Mate for the same functions, which CNET's reviewers found to be nearly useless.

In other words, Google seems to be the only Snapdragon 800 client with an interest in pushing voice activation as a major feature. I'm banking we'll hear a lot about it at the release of the Nexus 5, but then again, I've been disappointed in the past -- I'm still a little shocked at the lack of LTE on the Nexus 4.

So now all we can do is wait. Before the October 15 date popped up, I was hearing that Nexus 5 availability was more likely to happen closer to the end of the month, which could make sense for a Halloween trick-or-treat tie-in given the introduction of Android KitKat.