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Every year developers from around the world descend on Mountain View, California, in order to share ideas with their peers and explore the latest trends in technology for the web, mobile and beyond. This event is called Google I/O, and as the event name may suggest, it is an event run by Google as a chance for them to set out their vision of the future to the development community and a wider technology-consuming public.

In previous years Google I/O has seen Google launch a number of initiatives including Google Now, Chromebooks and Android Wear. Traditionally the event is broken into two sections: a keynote speech which focuses on Google’s various web services and the Android operating system and developer sessions which are focused on helping developers get to grips with a wide range of web technologies, for many of which Google is a key player.

Martin Dunford, Head of Technology, Ashfield Digital & Creative, shares what he found most interesting from this event and what’s next in healthcare technology.

Machine medical experts

Along with many of the other tech giants, Google is currently putting a huge amount of focus on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, most notably machine learning. In the field of AI, similar to other technological developments, what has started in academic and industrial research labs has now ended up in the hands of creative software developers where the technology begins to have a real-world application. Google’s biggest contribution to this developer community is TensorFlow, a toolset to help power many of its own products (speech recognition, image recognition and search). Google released this toolset for free to developers as open-source software in late 2015 and much of the focus of this year’s I/O event was on practical applications of the software, with the hope that the AI adoption rate will accelerate.

For the medical sector, AI techniques such as these can have dramatic and far-reaching effects. Imagine a system that has taken the expert knowledge from the medical community and used it to identify diseases of the human eye, providing in pictures a basis for its own iterative learning. Eventually, through machine learning, the system may become even more prolific in the initial diagnosis of that disease than, for example, a general practitioner. That is not to say that humans will be replaced, there will always be a role for human expertise. However, early identification provided by software that is constantly refining its own understanding with specialised knowledge, could be an invaluable tool for early diagnosis. This could be of particular value in developing countries where resources may be limited and, in theory, all that will be required is a smartphone and a network connection.

What’s next for VR?

Another technology that was covered during Google I/O, and is likely to have increasing use for the medical community, in terms of training and even therapy, is virtual reality (VR). A lot has been made of VR in the last couple of years, partly down to the interest in high-end devices such as the Oculus Rift, but also because of the Cardboard initiative that Google announced at Google I/O 2014. At that time many thought the initiative was some kind of joke; Google has a long and storied tradition of April fools’ jokes, as it was essentially just a piece of cardboard and some £1 plastic lenses into which the user would slide their existing smartphone. But what Google achieved with Cardboard was to create the basis of a manufacturer-neutral VR standard, something that had been missing within an ecosystem which until then had been a battleground for expensive proprietary technology. It also helped get VR tech into the hands of developers and in turn consumers (Google claims that more than 5 million Cardboard viewers have been shipped and over 25 million Cardboard VR applications have been installed).

The success of Cardboard has led Google to develop a more advanced standard which it unveiled during the Google I/O 2016 keynote. Named Daydream, the new initiative uses the same principles of Cardboard, i.e. creating a set of standards that hardware manufacturers can adhere to, and ensuring consumers are provided with a consistent experience. Where Daydream goes a step further than Cardboard is that the standards now cover the phones themselves and adds a motion controller for increased interaction. We have seen in the past (with smartphones, wearables etc.) that when technology proliferates to the mainstream, the general public become more comfortable with it and the medical community working with developers create great experiences.

AI and VR are just a couple of noteworthy areas that Google I/O covered this year. Other topics included the Internet of Things (IoT) – which we will provide more information on in the coming weeks – location-based experiences, security, mobile web performance and many more.

The great thing about Google I/O is not what you see presented at the event, but what comes from the development community in the weeks and months following it. With that in mind I’ll be keeping a keen eye on further developments and either I, or one of my Ashfield Digital & Creative colleagues, will report back again on anything that we think will help to shape the future of healthcare technology.

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