Google injects smarts, stickers into Hangouts communication app

The all-purpose app for text, video, and voice chat can now detect when people are trying to find each other in the real world and then help them meet up. Also new: stickers, video filters, and bigger ambitions at Google.

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Bradley Horowitz, Google's vice president of product, introduces a new version of the company's Hangouts communication app at the LeWeb conference.
"It's texting, it's telephony, it's one-to-one, it's many-to-many, it's consumer, it's enterprise," Bradley Horowitz, Google's vice president of product, said at LeWeb about the updated Hangouts app. Stephen Shankland/CNET

PARIS -- Google updated its Hangouts app on Wednesday so the multipurpose communication tool can detect when people are trying to find each other and make it easier to connect.

The updated app, available for Google's Android mobile operating system first but submitted to Apple for approval on iOS, also lets people express themselves with stickers and video filter effects, Bradley Horowitz, vice president of product at Google, said at the LeWeb conference here.

The new app works by using natural-language processing to discover when one person has asked -- in a variety of ways -- where the other person is. That app then offers the other person an option to send location information with customizable precision.

"This is one of the most familiar experiences -- people are trying to connect in physical world," Horowitz said. It's cumbersome for people at movies, in conferences and in the rain to leave their messaging app, retrieve location information, then move back and share it. "We use machine learning and natural language processing to give an assist. With one click, you can share your location. This is entirely optional," he said.

The Hangouts update is one step on a very ambitious path for Google to become the middleman in communications, one of the most important and personal things humans do. Google wants Hangouts to be all things to all people, not just a tool for this or that niche.

Google's Hangouts now offers stickers.
Google's Hangouts now offers stickers. Google/Rhett Robinson

"It's texting, it's telephony, it's one-to-one, it's many-to-many, it's consumer, it's enterprise," Horowitz said of the app's scope. "It's not like throwing a dart and hitting one app like ephemeral imaging" -- the core value of rival app Snapchat. "We're trying to do something broader that helps people communicate wherever they are using whatever products they prefer."

Communication is one of the most important things people do with their phones and PCs. If Google can carve out a place at the center of that activity -- as it already has with Gmail -- it can keep people hooked into the Google ecosystem. That makes it more likely they'll buy Android phones, navigate with Google Maps, rent Google Play videos, subscribe to Google Play music services, and use Google Apps productivity tools.

Releasing an all-purpose communication tool means catering to all kinds of people, and apparently some of them like communicating with stickers -- graphical badges that can be inserted into chats. Hangouts now has hundreds of them, Horowitz said.

"We've got pirates, we've got cats, we've got Vikings," he said. "There are also some Easter eggs. Certain stickers are more than static stickers. They'll do things and be interesting, and people will discover those over time."

The new app also has performance and reliability improvements and moves to Google's current "Material Design" styling, he said.

Another new feature are filters that change the style of Hangouts' video chat abilities. People can now add real-time effects like the Shepard Fairey Hope poster, black and white, and sepia tone.

"The world learned in photography with things like Instagram that filters can be an incredible way to give some expression to your content," Horowitz said.

Packing so many features into one app runs the risk of a service that's confusing and bloated rather than fast and easy. But Google believes eventually its push to encompass many forms of communication will prevail, in part because people need to shift from one to another.

"The boundaries between these modalities are going to melt away," Horowitz said.