Turn customers into advocates with #SmallThanks

The holiday season is a time to be grateful for friends, family and community. For me, that gratitude includes the small businesses who are a part of my everyday life in California. From my friends at Zombie Runner whose post-run coffee is the best part of my workout, to the folks at Tin-Pot Creamery who make it impossible to give up ice cream; these small businesses make my day-to-day life better and add heart to our community, and for that, I am thankful. I firmly believe when we support the businesses we love, we make the places we live better.

I also spend much of my time at work thinking about how to help small businesses grow using the web. Our products play a pivotal role in helping people and small businesses connect with each other.  As this year’s holiday shopping season and Small Business Saturday approach us, we’re doing something extra to help small businesses stand out and succeed, both online and in their neighborhoods.

We’ve created the #SmallThanks Hub to help you get free, customized marketing materials to promote your business. Simply search for your business name on the site, and we’ll automatically create posters, social media posts, window clings, stickers and more—based on the reviews and local love from your customers on Google. And now, it is available nationally in U.S. to any verified Google listing with an address. (Don’t yet have a verified listing? Signing up is free and only takes a few minutes. Start here.)  

Reviews from your fans are like digital thank you notes, and they’re one of the first things people notice about your business in search results. A few positive small thanks can mean the difference between a potential customer choosing your business or going elsewhere. 71 percent of consumers say that positive reviews in search results make them more likely to use that the business, and listings with positive reviews see 360 percent higher clicks to their site.

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Show why your customers love you with posters in your store, and posts on social media.

Here are a few tips on how to use the materials from the #SmallThanks Hub to gain new customers and turn existing ones into advocates.

  1. Personalize your assets: Choose the reviews you want to feature, and select from several layouts, colors and styles to match your business’s aesthetics. You can create as many versions as you want.
  2. Show why your customers love you: Print and hang your customized posters in a visible area in your store, and share the social media versions with #SmallThanks to join in the conversation and show what makes you unique. Post the flyers around your neighborhood where potential customers might see them. 
  3. Ask customers to support you with reviews: Some customers may not remember to leave you a review, or realize the impact that it can have, so why not give them a little nudge? Place stickers in your window, receipt booklets, point-of-sale machine or anywhere else it can be prominently displayed to remind them to support you with a review. 
  4. Remind people to search for you: Post the “Find us on Google” stickers in your store and on your social media channels with #SmallThanks hashtag to tell potential customers how to connect with you.
  5. Keep your Google listing up to date: The holiday season usually means different hours and special offerings. Let customers know when you’ll be open using the special hours feature, and promote holiday specials with Local Posts
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Encourage customers to support you on Google by placing these in visible spots.

Happy holidays and best wishes from all of us at Google.

A merry mobile holiday with Google Shopping

In those spare moments between basting the turkey, assembling gingerbread houses, and planning your ugly-sweater party, you might find yourself reaching for your phone to research holiday gifts you still need to buy. You’re not alone: With information readily available at the swipe of a finger, holiday shoppers are doing more research before buying than ever before. Indeed, Black Friday searches containing “best” have more than doubled over the past two years on mobile. People are also scrutinizing products from every angle, including the packaging—mobile watchtime of unboxing videos is equivalent to watching “Love Actually” over 20 million times!

Before you head “over the river and through the woods” to deliver your presents this season, we’re introducing improvements to mobile shopping experiences on Google that’ll help you browse, research, compare, and get the items crossed off your holiday gift list.

What’s hot on the list this year  

As always, there’s a new crop of gifts climbing the trends chart. Here’s a look at popular searches going into Black Friday:

Get the shopping scoop in a snap

To help you search for gifts on the go, we recently redesigned mobile shopping on Google, bringing more product information to the forefront. Click the “Quick View” button in the Google Shopping ad to preview details like a bigger image, product description, reviews and seller rating—and to see if you can score a good deal by checking if it’s on sale. If you see an item that’s almost perfect but not quite what you want, scroll down to view visually similar or related products underneath, or to discover more products from the same brands or retailers.

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More quickly and easily research, compare and narrow down your gift options

We know you’ve got limited time and lots of gifts to buy. Knowing that researching items and comparing prices are two of the most common mobile shopping activities, we recently introduced enhancements to the knowledge panel on Google.com to help you quickly find product photos, videos, reviews, descriptions and more.

To help you further narrow down your options and give you deeper insight into potential purchases, we’re now showing buying guides on Google for broad categories (like sewing machines or coffee grinders).

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Also, when you search for a specific product, Google.com now shows you other helpful information, like related items, and allows you to compare reviews, prices and other specs, side by side. And if you’re searching for tech gadgets, we’ll help ensure that you’re looking at the latest and greatest. You’ll now see a label alerting you there’s a “newer model available” if you’re browsing last year’s product.

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Shop by voice with the Google Assistant

As much as we try to plan ahead, procrastination happens. If you find yourself looking for something at the last minute, try using your Google Assistant to see where you can purchase needed items nearby by saying “Ok Google, where can I buy…”, or to get it sent right to your doorstep by saying “Ok Google, buy…”. Heading into the holidays, we see people with a Google Home device—which enables voice shopping with the Google Assistant—are using their voice to most frequently buy or add everyday essentials like paper towels or pet food to their shopping lists. We’re also seeing people using voice to find other types of products to prep for the holidays —including kitchen tools like basting brushes to perfectly glaze those Thanksgiving dishes, toys to slip under the tree, or fuzzy blankets to keep warm by the fireplace.

Whether you’re researching on your phone or shopping with your voice, we wish you happy deal-hunting this holiday season!

Once again, Proud to Be First – IoT Performance

Over the past three decades, industry standard bodies like the TPC and SPEC have developed several standards for performance benchmarking. These standards have been a significant driving force behind the development of faster, less expensive, and more energy efficient systems. The two most influential database benchmark standards have been: TPC-C, the industry standard for benchmarking transaction processing systems, and TPC-D and its […]

Customer Success: Your Most Powerful Weapon in the Battle for Customer Retention

As part of my more than 20 years with Cisco, my family and I were fortunate to spend three years on assignment in Singapore. When we relocated back to the U.S. in 2016, we had an immediate need to purchase two cars. Without a specific vehicle preference in mind, we relied heavily on the recommendation […]

Google Play Referrer API: Track and measure your app installs easily and securely

Posted by Neto Marin, Developer Advocate

Understanding how people find your app and what they do once they’ve installed
it is crucial to helping you make the right product and marketing decisions.
This is especially important when you’re deciding your advertising strategy and
budget. Today many app measurement companies and ad networks offer ad
attribution solutions based on referral data. As such accurate install referral
data is vital for correctly attributing app installs, as well as discounting
fraudulent attempts for install credit.

To help you obtain more accurate and reliable data about your installs, we’re
introducing the Google Play Install Referrer API, a reliable
way to securely retrieve install referral content. Using this API, your app will
get precise information straight from the Play Store, including:

  • The referrer URL of the installed package.
  • The timestamp, in seconds, of when the referrer click happened.
  • The timestamp, in seconds, of when the installation began.

We’ve tested the API with our App Attribution
Program
partners including Adjust,
AppsFlyer, Singular and TUNE.

“The new Play API provides us with the data we need to effectively detect
and prevent click injection; it’s a monumental step in securing a crucial
information exchange on Android.”

– Paul Müller, CTO & Co-Founder, Adjust

“The new Google Play API introduces fresh insights into both mobile ad fraud
and the mobile user journey, two key domains with impact across the ecosystem.”

– Elad Mashiach, VP, AppsFlyer

“This additional data directly from the Play Store provides increased precision for the Kochava fraud suite to further minimize fraud for our customers.”

– Charles Manning, CEO, Kochava

“Google’s new API is a game changer that will help marketing analytics
platforms like Singular identify and prevent a significant portion of Ad Fraud,
and provide security and accuracy to mobile advertisers”

– Gadi Eliashiv, CEO &
Co-Founder, Singular

“This new data from Google Play is essential for marketers who demand
accountability out of their mobile app install advertising spend. At TUNE, this
data is allowing us to outright eliminate entire forms of mobile app install
fraud while providing new insight into how mobile app installs are driven.”

– Dan Koch, Chief Technical Officer, TUNE

Starting today, the API works with the Play Store app from version
8.3.73 and later for all developers.

Play Install Referrer Library 1.0 now available

To make it easy to integrate the Install Referrer API, we’ve released the
Install Referrer Library 1.0 for Android. The library is available in our Maven
repository. To start using it, add the following dependency to your app module
build.gradle file:

dependencies {
          ...
          compile 'com.android.installreferrer:installreferrer:1.0'
      }

All communication with the Play Store app happens through a Service, so the
first step is to establish the connection between your app and the Play Store.
Also, to receive the connection result and updates it’s necessary to implement a
listener, InstallReferrerStateListener. This listener could be your
current Activity or any other class you want to use:

public class MainActivity extends AppCompatActivity 
    implements InstallReferrerStateListener {
    …
}

Now that you have an InstallReferrerStateListener, you can start
binding your app to the Play Store app service. To establish the connection, you
must build an InstallReferrerClient instance and call the
startConnection() method:

InstallReferrerClient mReferrerClient
...
mReferrerClient = newBuilder(this).build();
mReferrerClient.startConnection(this);

Then, handle the connection result in the
onInstallReferrerSetupFinished() method. If the connection is OK,
the app can retrieve install referrer information, by calling the
getInstallReferrer() method:

@Override
public void onInstallReferrerSetupFinished(int responseCode) {
   switch (responseCode) {
       case InstallReferrerResponse.OK:
           try {
               Log.v(TAG, "InstallReferrer conneceted");
               ReferrerDetails response = mReferrerClient.getInstallReferrer();
               handleReferrer(response);
               mReferrerClient.endConnection();
           } catch (RemoteException e) {
               e.printStackTrace();
           }
           break;
       case InstallReferrerResponse.FEATURE_NOT_SUPPORTED:
           Log.w(TAG, "InstallReferrer not supported");
           break;
       case InstallReferrerResponse.SERVICE_UNAVAILABLE:
           Log.w(TAG, "Unable to connect to the service");
           break;
       default:
           Log.w(TAG, "responseCode not found.");
   }
}

For more details about the new API and the client library, visit the Install
Referrer Client Library page
and the reference
documentation
.

Other Implementations

If you are not able to use our client library, you can use the AIDL interface
and establish the connection with Google Play Store on your own. Check out the
IGetInstallReferrerService
AIDL reference
for details of the methods and the service
specification.

What’s next?

Check out the Play
Install Referrer API documentation
for details about the new API, the library’s
reference docs
, and our Quick
Start guide
.

Experimenting with VR at the South China Morning Post

Having spent my pre-Google career as a reporter and editor at legacy media organizations, I can tell you that digital transformation in the news industry is challenging. Even when news organizations have the will, resources and technical expertise, the obstacles to transformation can be daunting.

In Asia, few news organization have plunged headlong into digital transformation like South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s top English-language daily newspaper. With a daily weekday circulation of roughly 105K, SCMP is a midsize paper, but its language and geography give it outsized influence.

For more than a century, SCMP has been documenting Greater China for the English-speaking diaspora across Asia-Pacific. Before the internet, expatriates and visitors would pick up the paper, sometimes days old, on airplanes and in hotels across the region. For those living in mainland China (like I did in the 1990s), the paper offered a window into the place where they lived, from a familiar yet discrete vantage point.

Now, SCMP uses the web to reach the growing global community of readers interested in news about China, and experiment with new methods of storytelling along the way. After its purchase by Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma in 2016, the newspaper suddenly had a mandate to evolve, and was given the runway and resources to experiment.

“Culture and identity are massively important when you are trying to turn around a 114-year-old company … until you have a company that is ready to experiment, willing to fail, and able to move with agility … you can talk all day long about transformation and where you’re heading but you’ll never get there,” said SCMP CEO Gary Liu in an interview with Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy.

That entrepreneurial spirit led SCMP to take on an immersive virtual reality project that would trace the history of Hong Kong from British rule to the present day, mining a century’s worth of archival photos and illustrations and presenting them alongside modern-day 360-degree video and drone footage. The project was Google News Lab’s first immersive storytelling partnership in the Asia-Pacific region, part of the team’s broader effort to accelerate immersive storytelling across the news industry.

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“It had to be big, bold, and beautiful—and leverage new formats, technologies and platforms to tell the story,” according to SCMP online editor Brett McKeehan, who helmed the project and talked about the process at a recent Google News Lab event.

In order to make the project accessible to as many readers as possible, especially in the smartphone-dominant Asian market, the SCMP team built a responsive website that was optimized for mobile, tablet and desktop. Animations of 3D Google Earth imagery helped to tell the story and orient the reader across time and space throughout the piece.

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One of Hong Kong’s wettest Junes in history.

They set a deadline to complete the project within two months—an eternity for a newspaper used to daily deadlines. “What can’t you do in two months? What could possibly go wrong? Two months—I thought, we could do anything in two months,” McKeehan said. Shooting and production schedules were set, everyone was ready to go…

And then it rained. And rained and rained—for six straight weeks—one of Hong Kong’s wettest Junes in history.

While it rained, the Hong Kong government changed its drone restrictions, rendering certain planned shots illegal. Meanwhile, SCMP’s developer team of three learned how to build, for the first time, a responsive HTML webframe that would work for both iOS and Android.

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A drone is being readied to capture footage across Hong Kong.

In the end, Brett and his team had to change their project scope and push back their release date to overcome the many unforeseen logistical and development challenges that sprang up throughout the process.

“It’s not a tale of of pixies and rainbows…It is a tale of toil and frustration, and the headaches that come with doing something new.”

Despite the pain, Brett said the experience was worthwhile, because it brought new skills that were now embedded in the newsroom. But for anyone embarking on the journey, he offered the following tips:

  • Embrace the medium: 360, VR, AR offer incredible storytelling possibilities. The sooner you take the plunge, the better. 
  • Experiment with new technologies, but start small before taking on more ambitious projects.
  • Don’t outsource: Bite the bullet, buy your own equipment (get cheap stuff and play). Own your ideas and develop your own talent.

“We’re an aspirational publisher. We’re doing something for the first time. So we made it; we’re happy with that,” McKeehan said.

And that is success, Gary Liu, SCMP’s CEO,  told me after it was published. “The point was to do it and learn in the process.”

#CiscoChat Recap — How Do You Compete for the Digital Sports Fan of 2020 and Beyond?

When it comes to competing for the attention of digital sports fans, the game is constantly changing. Digital technology innovations are paving the way to more connected, more engaging, and, ultimately, more memorable experiences — and also leading to heightened fan expectations. It’s not enough just to keep score from the sidelines. To make the […]

This Holiday Season – Buy One IoT Device, Get Free CVEs

As the Internet of Things gains steam and continues to develop, so are adversaries and the threats affecting these systems. Companies throughout the world are busy deploying low cost Internet-connected computing devices (aka the Internet of Things) to solve business problems and improve our lives. In tandem, criminals are developing their methods for abusing and […]

Archer Goes Undercover at Comic Con

Rather than create another video featuring Archer half-heartedly apologizing for his absence at San Deigo Comic Con, the show’s production team thought it would be fun to change things up, and have Archer interact in real-time with fans.

Defying gravity: an epic stunt at the Guggenheim Bilbao

When the Guggenheim Bilbao museum opened 20 years ago it was described by many as a starship from outer space. Its swirling roof is made of paper-thin titanium tiles—33,000 of them—covering the building like fish scales. At the time, it was such a novelty that the museum had to commission a chemical laboratory to produce a custom liquid to clean the titanium!

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Guggenheim Bilbao (photo by Trashhand)

The museum was an unusual experiment not just because of its gleaming shell. Over two decades ago, following the collapse of the traditional industries Bilbao was built on, the city was scarred with industrial wastelands, abandoned factories, and a community afflicted by unemployment and social tensions. Bilbao surprised the world (and raised a few eyebrows) with a unique idea to kickstart the city’s regeneration, and they set out to build—not new factories or new roads—but instead a new center for modern art.

Since then, the museum has attracted 19 million visitors and became the epicenter of the urban renewal that rippled through Bilbao. Today it stands as an icon of the city and its successful self-transformation. To celebrate the Guggenheim’s 20th anniversary, Google Arts & Culture partnered with the museum to bring their stories to you and show it from a new angle.

But how do you find a new angle on one of the world’s most photographed buildings? Google invited Johan Tonnoir—known for running and jumping across Paris’s busy rooftops with only a pair of sturdy shoes—to the Guggenheim.

Johan explored the building in his own way … through a breathtaking stunt-run across the building and its iconic slippery roof. He climbed to the highest peak and jumped, flipped and leapt from one wing of the roof to the other at 50 meters high. And all along, urban photographer Trashhand from Chicago followed him with his lens.

Check out the museum’s masterpieces on Google Arts & Culture (but please don’t try to do it Johan’s way…). You can see all this online at g.co/guggenheimbilbao or in the Google Arts & Culture app on iOS and Android.

Investing £1 million in training for computing teachers in the U.K.

Advancing our students’ understanding of the principles and practices of computing is critical to developing a competitive workforce for the 21st century.

In every field, businesses of all sizes are looking to hire people who understand computing, so we need more students to leave school confident in skills like coding, computational thinking, machine learning and cybersecurity.

The U.K. has already led the way in preparing for this future by making computer science education a part of the school curriculum in 2014. But we know there is more to do to ensure young people in every community have access to world-class computer science education.

A recent report from the Royal Society found that despite the good progress in recent years, only 11 percent of Key Stage 4 pupils take GCSE computer science. The majority of teachers are teaching an unfamiliar school subject without adequate support. These teachers are eager to offer computer science to their students but they need access to subject area training to build their confidence.

The U.K. government’s announcement that they’re investing £100 million for an additional 8,000 computer science teachers supported by a new National Centre for Computing is an encouraging step forward. It builds on the progress that’s been made since computing was added to the curriculum in 2014 by helping to ensure teachers have the specialist training and support they need to educate the next generation of British computer scientists.

We want to continue to play our part too.

Today we’re announcing £1 million in grants to support training for secondary school computing teachers in the U.K.

The Google.org grant will allow the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the British Computer Society and the National STEM Learning Centre to deliver free computer science and pedagogy training for thousands of key stage 3 and key stage 4 teachers in England over three years, with a specific focus on disadvantaged areas.

A Raspberry Pi and Google teacher training workshop in Leeds, UK
A Raspberry Pi and Google teacher training workshop in Leeds, U.K.

Through this effort, they will make make online courses and professional development resources available to teachers anywhere, anytime, for free, and deliver free in-person workshops for teachers across the country.

Googlers care deeply about helping to develop our future computer scientists, and many of them will give their time and skills to this program. A team of Google engineers and learning and development specialists will volunteer with Raspberry Pi to ensure that all teachers are able to access the online resources and courses.

This grant is part of Google’s long-standing commitment to computer science education. Through Google.org, we’ve given nearly $40 million to organizations around the globe ensuring that traditionally underrepresented students have access to opportunities to explore computer science.

In the U.K., we also support teacher recruitment and professional development by teaming up with organizations like Teach First and University of Wolverhampton, and we focus on inspiring more children, especially girls and those from disadvantaged areas, to take up computing through Code Club UK after-school clubs.

CS education and computational thinking skills are key to the future, and we’re committed to supporting Raspberry Pi—and other organizations like them—to ensure teachers and young people have the skills they’ll need to succeed.

How Sweden’s Oxievång School helps teachers navigate the journey to the “learning island”

Editor’s note: Google has just completed its first-ever Google for Education Study Tour, bringing nearly 100 educators from 12 countries around Europe to Lund, Sweden, to share ideas on innovating within their systems and creating an environment that embraces innovation.. One of the highlights of the two-day event was a visit to Oxievång School in Malmö, where principal Jenny Nyberg has led their adoption of technology in the classroom. Below, Jenny explains how to support teachers during a period of technology adoption.

When we’re introducing new technology for our classrooms, I tell my teachers to imagine the ultimate goal as an island we all have to swim toward. Some of us are very fast swimmers, and we’ll figure out how to get to the island quickly, and even get around any sharks. Some of us are slow swimmers, and may be hesitant to jump in, but the strong swimmers will show us the way (and how to get around the sharks). Eventually, we all have to jump into the water.

Bringing tech-based personalized learning into the classrooms at Oxievång School was our “island” and we’ve all completed the journey, which was particularly important given that our school, like the city of Malmö itself, is a mix of different people with varying needs. We have immigrant students as well as native Swedes; 40 percent of our students speak Swedish as their second language. But all students can  become strong learners when teachers discover what motivates and excites them. When we adopted G Suite for education, our “fast-swimmer” teachers showed their colleagues how they could now customize learning for each and every student.

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Jenny Nyberg during school visit

As school leaders, my vice principals and I served as role models for using G Suite— not just for teaching, but for making our jobs easier too. We showed teachers how to use Google Sites to store information we needed every day, like staff policies and forms. We walked teachers through the Google Docs tools that allow them to comment on student work immediately rather than waiting to receive homework from students, and giving feedback much later. When teachers saw this in action, they understood how adopting G Suite was going to make a big difference for their teaching effectiveness and their productivity.

If you want teachers to become enthusiastic about using new technology, they need to be confident in their use of the new technology. For this, you have to give them support.  So we hired a digital learning educator who works exclusively with teachers to help them build up their technology skills. Every teacher receives a personalized development plan with a list of resources for training.

Our students have become more engaged in their coursework as teachers have become better at using Google technology to personalize learning. If students are curious about a subject, they can use their Chromebooks and G Suite tools to further explore the topic on their own. They also interact with teachers more often, even using Hangouts to meet with teachers outside of the classroom. As teachers become more confident, their enthusiasm spreads to the students.

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One of the stations included students demonstrating robots they programmed with their Chromebooks

Once we give teachers basic training, we keep supporting them so that the transformation spreads throughout the school. When they need extra help with using G Suite, teachers know where to find it: they can schedule a meeting with the digital learning educator. We have team leaders across grades and subjects who help teachers’ follow their development plans. Once a month, we all meet at school sessions called “skrytbyt,” which roughly translates as “boost exchange.” In these sessions teachers trade stories about lessons that went well and ask for advice about how to improve lessons they find challenging. Sharing knowledge is a great way to build confidence.

As leaders in education, we have to be honest with teachers and acknowledge that change isn’t easy, but assure them that we’re here for them. Teachers worry that students know more about technology than they do—students are the digital natives, while teachers are the digital immigrants. We constantly remind teachers that they can find inspiration in each other and in their students’ knowledge, so that we all make it to the island together.

Fact-checking the French election: lessons from CrossCheck, a collaborative effort to combat misinformation

Nine months ago, 37 newsrooms worked together to combat misinformation in the run-up to the French Presidential election. Organized by First Draft, and supported by the Google News Lab, CrossCheck launched a virtual newsroom, where fact-checkers collaborated to verify disputed online content and share fact-checked information back to the public.

The initiative was a part of the News Lab’s broader effort to help journalists curb the spread of misinformation during important cultural and political moments. With a recent study finding that nearly 25% of all news stories about the French Presidential election shared on social media were fake, it was important for French newsrooms to work closely together to combat misinformation in a timely fashion. 

Yesterday at our office in Paris, alongside many of the newsrooms who took part in the initiative, we released a report on the project produced by academics from the University of Toulouse and Grenoble Alpes University. The report explored the impact the project had on the newsrooms and journalists involved, and the general public.

  A few themes emerged from the report:

  • Accuracy in reporting rises above competition. While news organizations operate in a highly competitive landscape, there was broad agreement that “debunking work should not be competitive” and should be “considered a public service.” That spirit was echoed by the willingness of 100 journalists to work together and share information for ten weeks leading up to Election Day. Many of the journalists talked about the sense of pride they felt doing this work together. As one journalist put it, “debunking fake news is not a scoop.”    
  • The initiative helped spread best practices around verification for journalists. Journalists interviewed for the report discussed the value of the news skills the picked up around fact-checking, image verification, and video authentication—and the lasting impact that would have on their work. One journalist noted, “I strengthened my reflexes, I progressed in my profession, in fact-checking, and gained efficiency and speed working with user generated content.” 
  • Efforts to ensure accuracy in reporting are important for news consumers. The project resonated with many news consumers who saw the effort as independent, impartial and credible (reinforced by the number of news organizations that participated). By the end of the election, the CrossCheck blog hit nearly 600,000 page views, had roughly 5K followers on Twitter and 180K followers on Facebook (where its videos amassed 1.2 million views). As one news reader noted, “many people around me were convinced that a particular piece of misinformation was true before I demonstrated the opposite to them. This changed how they voted.”

You can learn more about the News Lab’s efforts to work with the news industry to increase trust and fight misinformation here.

‘Tis the season to Fi it Forward

With the season for giving right around the corner, we’re excited to kick off the Fi it Forward referral challenge. The challenge is rolling out today starting on desktop.

Like our last referral challenge, participants will earn prizes for the referrals they make throughout the challenge. In the Fi it Forward challenge, you can win up to two hardware gifts when you refer friends to Project Fi: a Google Chromecast and the new Android One moto x4.

But we’re most excited about our opportunity to pay it forward with our third gift. At the end of the challenge, Project Fi will donate $50,000 to the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center (ITDRC). We’re thrilled to see organizations like the ITDRC harness the power of communications technology to make a meaningful difference in crisis response and recovery, and we’re grateful to come together as a community to support their initiatives. Project Fi users don’t have to take any action to participate in the community gift—you’re already supporting the ITDRC’s disaster relief efforts just by being a part of Project Fi.

Ready to get started?. Remember to enter the challenge and get your referrals in by December 17. We can’t wait to Fi it Forward with all of you this holiday season.

Lights, shadows and silhouettes by #teampixel

Shadows don’t always have to be scary—they can be downright magical. This week, #teampixel is sharing everything from a solitary lemon’s shadow to palm trees silhouetted against a vivid sky in Venice, CA. Come chase shadows with us and see what you find.

If you’d like to be featured on @google and The Keyword, tag your Pixel photos with #teampixel and you might see yourself next.

  • Pixel_1116_.jpg
    Left: james_4388 – palm tree silhouettes in Venice, CA. Right: Lkkben – shadowing a game in Singapore
  • Pixel_1116_2.jpg
    davidhorneman – caught in a sea of lights
  • Pixel_1116_3.jpg
    Left: prokopakis_ – Athens Olympic Sports Complex. Right: sidgoswami – a spark of madness
  • Pixel_1116_4.jpg
    Left: Wanderingislemissionpic – a lemon and its shadow. Right: phoolandevi_ – shadow play in Jaipur, Rajasthan
  • Pixel_1116_5.jpg
    rhyslawsn – soggy sandals and socks in British Columbia

7 ways the Assistant can help you get ready for Turkey Day

Thanksgiving is just a few days away and, as always, your Google Assistant is ready to help. So while the turkey cooks and the family gathers, here are some questions to ask your Assistant. 

thanksgiving
  • Show up to dinner on time: “Ok Google, how’s traffic?”
  • Prepare accordingly: “Ok Google, set a turkey timer for 4 hours.”
  • And don’t forget dessert: “Ok Google, add apple pie and pumpkin pie to my shopping list”
  • Play a game while you wait for turkey: “Ok Google, play Thanksgiving Mad Libs” 
  • Hear a funny tale: “Ok Google, tell me a turkey story” 
  • Learn something new: “Ok Google, give me a fun fact about Thanksgiving”
  • When Thanksgiving’s over, get ready for the next occasion:  “Ok Google, play holiday music” 

Happy Thanksgiving 🦃

Developing a VR game in just two weeks

Earlier this year, 3D modeler Jarlan Perez joined the Blocks team for a two-week sprint. The goal of his time with the team was to create a fully immersive virtual reality game in just two weeks using Blocks and Unreal Engine, two tools that have significantly influenced his process as a modeler and game enthusiast.

The result was “Blocks Isle,” the first level of a game that takes you on a journey to find your long lost friend in a sci-fi land of wonder. To win, you must solve a puzzle using hidden clues and interactions throughout the experience.

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You start out on a strange desert island. After uncovering some clues and pulling a handy lever, a rocky pathway opens for exploration. Up ahead, hidden radios and books reveal clues to solve the puzzle.

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Initial steps to get onto Blocks Isle. Levers and teleportation immerse the user in a new world.

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Solving the puzzle on Blocks Isle

We caught up with Jarlan to hear more about his process and advice for other developers building immersive experiences using Blocks and Unreal Engine 4.

Brittany: Tell us about using Blocks and Unreal to develop a game in such a short amount of time.

Jarlan: Tag teaming both pieces of software worked very well! Blocks allowed me to visualize and be in the space during the modeling and conceptual phase. Unreal is like giving an artist magical powers: I’m able to fully build a proof of concept and implement functionality without having to be a professional programmer.

I found myself spending part of the day in Blocks experimenting with concepts and the rest in Unreal creating basic functionality for those ideas. This method allowed for rapid prototyping and was later beneficial when populating the space with art assets.

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Basic prototype in Unreal

What tips and tricks did you uncover that made it easy to build your game?

Being able to build large parts of the environment while standing smack dab in the middle of it is wonderful.

A big thing that I found myself doing is blowing the scene up to actual size, standing in it, and using a combination of the move grip and me moving my arms back and forth to simulate walking within the space. It helped me further understand how I wanted the player to navigate the space and where certain things needed to be placed. Again all within Blocks and no code.

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Simulating walking through the experience in Blocks, as part of the creation process

Another general tip, the snap trigger is your friend! I’ve used it for most of my modeling in Blocks to snap and place assets.

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Using Blocks’ snapping feature to align shapes in the environment

How did you experiment with different ideas and concepts?

I had a few different concepts when I started the project. Blocks allowed me to quickly build a mock up of each for testing.

Blocks is an amazing tool for spatial prototyping. Before bringing a scene into Unreal, I’d blow it up to scale and move around in the space to see if it makes sense for what I’m trying to achieve. This saved me so much time.

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Further development of the Blocks Isle concept

Without Blocks, how might this process have been different?

After all is said and done, I still had to take the geometry from Blocks and bring it into a 3D program for unwrapping and lightmap baking.

That said, even though I am proficient in traditional 3D modeling, I think the project would have taken longer to put together without Blocks. Blocks helped me take out some steps in the process. Traditionally I’d model out the scene and export pieces as I went, bringing them into the engine, placing them, and moving around to get a sense of how the space feels. All that got combined inside Blocks. Oh, and not to mention color exploration. If I wanted to try out colors I’d also have to create materials and place them on each asset during the in-engine test which takes more time. I can easily preview all of that in Blocks.

What advice would you give to other game developers about using these tools?

Keep exploring and always stay hungry. Be on the lookout for new tools that can improve your process and don’t be afraid of trying something new. If it doesn’t work out, it’s ok. We learn so much more from the challenges we take on than from the ones we don’t face by walking the easy path.

There are some amazing low poly games and artists out there. I think many artists would benefit from making models in VR using Blocks. If I was able to finish this project in two weeks, I can only imagine what a small team could do. Give it a try, and post your creations or questions using #MadeWithBlocks.

If you’d like to experience Blocks Isle on the HTC Vive, you can download the game.

The High Five: our searches go on, and on

Turkey, “Titanic” and the pope’s new ride were on our minds this week. Here are a few of the week’s top search trends, with data from the Google News Lab.

Almost time for turkey

As people in the U.S. prepare to gather around the table for Thanksgiving next week, our Thanksgiving insights page has all the trends. Pumpkin pie dominates searches in the U.S., but pecan pie is more popular in the southeast and apple pie is the state favorite in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. A smoked turkey is popular in most states, though some contend it should be roasted, fried or grilled. And Friendsgiving continues to rise in popularity, with searches like “friendsgiving ideas,” “friendsgiving invitations” and “friendsgiving games.”

We’ll never let go

Two decades ago, “Titanic” left an iceberg-sized hole in our hearts, and now it’s coming back to theaters in honor of its 20-year anniversary. In the years since its debut, search interest in “Titanic” reached its highest point globally in April 2012 when Titanic in 3D was released. All this talk of sinking ships made us think about other famous boats—the top searched shipwrecks this week include the Batavia, the Edmund Fitzgerald and the USS Indianapolis.

Hot wheels

The “popemobile” got an upgrade this week. Lamborghini gifted the pope a special edition luxury car, which he decided to auction off for charity. Though the pope is known for his affinity for Fiats, interest in “Pope Lamborghini” zoomed 190 percent higher than “Pope Fiat.” People also searched to find out, “Why did the Lamborghini company give the pope a car?” and “How much does the Lamborghini that they gave the pope cost?”

That’s a foul

Searches for “UCLA basketball players” shot 330 percent higher this week when three players returned home after being arrested for shoplifting while on tour with the team in China. The search queries dribbled in: “How long are the UCLA players suspended for?” “Why did China let the UCLA players go?” and “What were the UCLA players stealing?”

All about the music

With hits like “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” taking over the globe this year, the Latin Grammys last night were a hot ticket. People searched “How to watch the Latin Grammy awards online,” “What time are the Latin Grammy awards on?” and “How does music qualify for a Latin Grammy award?” Of the nominees for Record of the Year, “Despacito,” “Guerra,” and “Felices Los 4” were the most searched.

An AI Resident at work: Suhani Vora and her work on genomics

Suhani Vora is a bioengineer, aspiring (and self-taught) machine learning expert, SNES Super Mario World ninja, and Google AI Resident. This means that she’s part of a 12-month research training program designed to jumpstart a career in machine learning. Residents, who are paired with Google AI mentors to work on research projects according to their interests, apply machine learning to their expertise in various backgrounds—from computer science to epidemiology.

I caught up with Suhani to hear more about her work as an AI Resident, her typical day, and how AI can help transform the field of genomics.

Phing: How did you get into machine learning research?

Suhani: During graduate school, I worked on engineering CRISPR/Cas9 systems, which enable a wide range of research on genomes. And though I was working with the most efficient tools available for genome editing, I knew we could make progress even faster.

One important factor was our limited ability to predict what novel biological designs would work. Each design cycle, we were only using very small amounts of previously collected data and relied on individual interpretation of that data to make design decisions in the lab.

By failing to incorporate more powerful computational methods to make use of big data and aid in the design process, it was affecting our ability to make progress quickly. Knowing that machine learning methods would greatly accelerate the speed of scientific discovery, I decided to work on finding ways to apply machine learning to my own field of genetic engineering.

I reached out to researchers in the field, asking how best to get started. A Googler I knew suggested I take the machine learning course by Andrew Ng on Coursera (could not recommend it more highly), so I did that. I’ve never had more fun learning! I had also started auditing an ML course at MIT, and reading papers on deep learning applications to problems in genomics. Ultimately, I took the plunge and and ended up joining the Residency program after finishing grad school.  

Tell us about your role at Google, and what you’re working on right now.

I’m a cross-disciplinary deep learning researcher—I research, code, and experiment with deep learning models to explore their applicability to problems in genomics.

In the same way that we use machine learning models to predict the objects are present in an image (think: searching for your dogs in Google Photos), I research ways we can build neural networks to automatically predict the properties of a DNA sequence. This has all kinds of applications, like predicting whether a DNA mutation will cause cancer, or is benign.

What’s a typical day like for you?

On any given day, I’m writing code to process new genomics data, or creating a neural network in TensorFlow to model the data. Right now, a lot of my time is spent troubleshooting such models.

I also spend time chatting with fellow Residents, or a member of the TensorFlow team, to get their expertise on the experiments or code I’m writing. This could include a meeting with my two mentors, Mark DePristo and Quoc Le, top researchers in the field of machine learning who regularly provide invaluable guidance for developing the neural network models I’m interested in.

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    Suhani heads to the whiteboard.
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    Just a normal day writing code to process new genomics data, or creating (and troubleshooting…) a neural network in TensorFlow to model the data.
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    Selfie with her mentors, Mark DePristo and Quoc Le
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    Eating lunch at her favorite Google cafe.

What do you like most about the AI Residency program? About working at Google?

I like the freedom to pursue topics of our interest, combined with the strong support network we have to get things done. Google is a really positive work environment, and I feel set up to succeed. In a different environment I wouldn’t have the chance to work with a world-class researcher in computational genomics like Mark, AND Quoc, one of the world’s leading machine learning researchers, at time same time and place. It’s pretty mind-blowing.

What kind of background do you need to work in machine learning?

We have such a wide array of backgrounds among our AI Residents! The only real common thread I see is a very strong desire to work on machine learning, or to apply machine learning to a particular problem of choice. I think having a strong background in linear algebra, statistics, computer science, and perhaps modeling makes things easier—but these skills are also now accessible to almost anyone with an interest, through MOOCs!

What kinds of problems do you think that AI can help solve for the world?

Ultimately, it really just depends how creative we are in figuring out what AI can do for us. Current deep learning methods have become state of the art for image recognition tasks, such as automatically detecting pets or scenes in images, and natural language processing, like translating from Chinese to English. I’m excited to see the next wave of applications in areas such as speech recognition, robotic handling, and medicine.

Interested in the AI Residency? Check out submission details and apply for the 2018 program on our Careers site.