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Google Assistant Connect lets device makers roll their own hardware

This chip will let manufacturers build simple voice assistant functionality into their devices while a nearby smart speaker does the computing.

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Google's smart displays used Android Things. 

Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Google wants developers to build cool stuff with Google Assistant. The search giant released Android Things last year -- an operating system for simple connected devices. Google also opened the code for Google Assistant to developers.

Now Google has introduced Google Assistant Connect at CES 2019. It's an inexpensive platform that typically comes in the form of a chipset that developers can build into their gadgets. Google used an e-ink display and a button as examples. Developers can program the chips to do any Google Assistant functions they'd like -- so the e-ink display can search and show local weather or your daily calendar.

The chip will be small and inexpensive because it doesn't actually do the computing. Instead, it acts as either a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth bridge to a nearby Google smart device like a Google Home smart speaker. For the example of the e-ink display, the developer would program the chip with a simple repeating query asking about the current weather, the chip would send the question to a nearby Google Home, which would send back the answer. Then, the display could show the relevant info.

A device maker can program the Google Assistant Connect platform to recognize voice commands too. Google used an air conditioner as an example, saying you could talk to the air conditioner and tell it to turn off for an hour and it would respond appropriately. The chip would simply communicate the command to a nearby Google Home device and Google Assistant would use its smart home capabilities to turn off the gadget.

Google Assistant is in a heated battle with Amazon's Alexa for control of the smart home, and Alexa has already been built into a wider variety of devices. Google Assistant Connect could help the search giant catch up if developers find the idea of offloading computing for certain functions appealing. Alexa has a similar chip called the Amazon Connect Kit, but instead of handling the computing, it simply gives developers easy and secure access to Alexa's cloud.

Google's chipset could theoretically allow a creative developer to build a device with more features for less money, but it would also inexorably tie that device to the Google Assistant family. To that end, customers interested in the new device would need a Google Home, a Google Home Hub or something similar in order to make their Google Assistant Connect gadget work.

It's an interesting pitch, and one that could allow quicker setup for future smart home devices. Right now, GE has Bluetooth-enabled smart bulbs that can use nearby Google Home devices as a bridge to the cloud. You can even set them up using the Google Home app. Google Assistant Connect could allow a similar streamlined setup through Google Home, letting smart home developers focus entirely on the hardware and leaving the setup and cloud computing to Google.

The search giant is showing off Google Assistant Connect as part of its push for industry awareness at CES. It's one of several big announcements Google's making at the show. The actual chip won't be available to developers until this Spring at the company's developer conference. Google hasn't yet announced a price.

Between Android Things and Google Assistant Connect, developers will be able to choose how much of Google's computing they want to build into their devices. We'll see if this a la carte approach can finally help Google make a dent in Alexa's lead in device versatility.

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