Business / Tech

Google's Pixel 3 smartphone, complete with AI-powered camera, to debut in Japan in November

Kyodo, AP

Google LLC said Wednesday its Pixel 3 smartphone series with artificial intelligence-powered cameras will hit shelves in Japan in November, the first time the American tech giant has released its signature phones in the country.

The move into Japan pits Google against Apple Inc.’s iPhones, which make up half of the country’s market share.

The Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, with screen sizes of 5.5 inches and 6.3 inches, respectively, feature high-tech cameras and allow its users to screen calls using AI.

“It’s designed from inside out to be the smartest, most helpful device,” said Nanda Ramachandran, senior director at Google Pixel Business, at a news event in Tokyo. “They come at the intersection of AI, hardware and software working together.”

Google began receiving orders for the Pixel 3 series through its website Wednesday, while mobile phone carriers SoftBank Corp. and NTT Docomo Inc. will start taking preorders on Oct. 19 for the phones. They are set to be launched on Nov. 1.

The Pixel 3 is priced from ¥95,000 and the Pixel 3 XL from ¥119,000. They will be sold in 11 other countries, including the United States, Australia and Singapore.

The phones mirror an industry trend toward lusher, bigger screens and add twists on the camera for better pictures.

The third generation of Pixel phones, which was also unveiled Tuesday at an event in New York, features screens that span from one edge to another. It’s the first time the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary has embraced the format that Samsung has had for a few years and Apple adopted last year.

Google is also hiring photographer Annie Leibovitz to take pictures with the new Pixel in an effort to persuade consumers that its camera is superior.

The camera, for instance, promises better low-light and close-up shots by using software to combine multiple shots taken in succession. It will also warn you if someone blinked or if the shot is otherwise poor. The camera automatically takes about three seconds of shots, at lower resolution, and will recommend an alternative.

The Pixel joins LG’s V40 in sporting a second front lens to fit more people into selfies. But it lacks a zoom lens on either side, something available on some iPhones and Samsung phones. Instead, Google uses software to mimic that effect.

Users can also add animated stickers to photos that imitate the expressions of the subject.

Beyond the camera, Google is using artificial intelligence to help screen calls. Just tap on a button for Google’s voice assistant to ask the caller about the purpose of the call. You see a transcript of the response on the screen and you can choose to pick up or ignore the call. Callers are warned that they are talking to a robot and that a transcript would be made.

Although the Pixels have barely made a dent in the market since their debut two years ago, Google uses them to highlight what it considers to be the best features of its Android operating system. A previously announced feature in which software will call businesses to make appointments and restaurant reservations for you will debut on the Pixel first, for instance — initially in New York, Atlanta, Phoenix and the San Francisco area.

IDC analyst Ramon Llamas said the Pixel 3 doesn’t break new ground on hardware, but “software is a different story. It’s mostly about convenience here.”

As usual, the Pixel phones focus heavily on Google’s search engine, maps, digital assistant and YouTube video service.

Google has sold an estimated 7 million Pixels over the past two years, almost imperceptible next to the 3.6 billion phones shipped during that time, according to IDC. Apple alone sold 388 million iPhones during the same period.

Tuesday’s announcements come a day after Google disclosed a flaw that could have exposed personal information of up to 500,000 users of its Plus social network. Google declined to address that further Tuesday, though executives emphasized privacy and security throughout the event in New York.

For instance, the camera’s features for better shots will take advantage of software on the device itself, so that nothing gets sent to Google’s servers — unless you enable a backup feature with Google Photos. The Pixel 3 will have a new chip, called Titan, to store keys to the most sensitive information, including those needed to unlock the phone and descramble stored data. Many other phones already have similar hardware for security.

In the U.S., Google also rolled out Home Hub, which couples a small display screen with an internet-connected speaker. That’s similar to Amazon’s Echo Show and a new Facebook device called Portal. In another apparent nod to privacy concerns, Google didn’t put a camera on its Home Hub like Amazon and Facebook did with their respective devices to enable video calls.

Again, Google is attacking its rivals on price. The Home Hub will sell for $149 when it launches at American stores Oct. 22. The new version of Echo Show starts at $229, while the least expensive Facebook Portal sells for $199.

Also in the American market, Google will launch a tablet featuring its homegrown Chrome OS system. It will run Android apps, but offer functionality that’s closer to a desktop. The Pixel Slate will start at $599; a keyboard costs $199 more and a stylus another $99.