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Google I/O 2016 Preview: Alexa Challenger, VR Headset, Android N and More

If history is any indication, expect Google watchers to be very busy next week. Google's annual I/O developers conference kicks off Wednesday, May 18, with past editions typically touching on everything from new Android features to virtual reality efforts.

Wednesday's 1 p.m. ET keynote figures to be similarly action-packed. Google has a new version of Android to talk about, a possible voice-activated smart home device to take on Amazon's Echo and — reportedly — a virtual reality headset to unveil. We also expect to hear more about Android N and Google's progress on self-driving cars.

Here's what we could be hearing about during this year's Google I/O, when executives take to the stage at the Shoreline Amphitheatre near the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

Home Sweet Google Home?

Google I/O hasn't even started, and already we've gotten word on the first product Google plans to announce — if a New York Times report pans out. The publication says Google will unveil a voice-powered smart home controller — dubbed Google Home — to take on Amazon's Echo and its popular Alex voice assistant. The device won't ship until the fall, the Times says, but Google wants to take the chance to give developers a look at Google Home so they can make their apps and devices work the controller's voice tools, much like other services have tapped into Alexa on the Echo.

MORE: Best Smart Home Tech

The Times report certainly makes sense and follows on the heals of earlier reports that Google had a similar device named Chirp in the works. Look for Google to use I/O to throw down the gauntlet in front of Amazon to see who can come up with the better voice-powered tool.

Chances of Happening at I/O: A sneak peek looks likely

An Android VR Headset

Google is apparently not just content to let Cardboard give users a low-cost taste of virtual reality. The company will reportedly unveil a dedicated headset of its own called Android VR. Technology writer Peter Rojas tweeted that the rumored headset won't be as powerful as similar offerings from Oculus and HTC, though Google's effort is expect to exceed Samsung's Gear VR headset. Samsung's device requires a compatible smartphone, whereas Android VR looks like it may be a self-contained device powered by its own CPU.

The latest sign that a VR headset may be in the works from Google comes from Android Police, which spotted an Android VR placeholder in the Google Play Developer Console.

Chances of Happening at I/O: Fairly Good

MORE: Best VR Headsets for PCs and Phones

Android N

This one's a no-brainer. Google always talks up Android development at a conference full of developers, and preview versions of the next version of the mobile OS are already out in the wild — or at least available to developers who've enrolled in Android's beta program.

The first Android N preview introduced multi-tasking features such as a split-screen view and bundled notifications along with a number of under-the-hood changes aimed at boosting both performance and battery life of Android devices. The subsequent preview a new 3D rendering API called Vulkan, launcher shortcuts that will let users perform actions more quickly and changes to the look of emoji.

Expect to hear about these features — and probably new ones — during I/O. Maybe Google will even tell us what the N stands for. (We hold out hope for Nougat.)

Changes of Happening at I/O: A Certainty

Self-Driving Cars

This one's motivated by the venue for Google I/O as much as the news cycle. Yes, Fiat Chrysler has just struck a deal with Google to build self-driving prototypes based on the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid-powered minivan. But also consider where I/O's taking place this year.

The Shoreline Amphitheatre will host Google I/O this year. (Credit: Coolcaesar, Wikipedia)

(Image credit: The Shoreline Amphitheatre will host Google I/O this year. (Credit: Coolcaesar, Wikipedia))

The Shoreline Amphitheatre offers plenty of parking lots — just the sort of place where you could demo self-driving cars. It's certainly a better venue for that kind of showcase than the crowded city streets surrounding the San Francisco convention center that's hosted Google's developer conference in recent years.

MORE: What's Next for Car Tech: The Road to Self-Driving Autos

Chances of Happening at I/O: Possible

A Chrome/Android Mash-Up

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was planning to fold its Chrome OS into Android, giving the company one merged operating system. Such a move would leave Google with fewer platforms to manage while also acknowledging mobile's dominance in today's world. Google may have already tipped its hand: In April, Ars Technica spotted a hint that the Google Play Store might be heading to Chrome OS devices.

For its part, Google has adamantly denied that it's killing off the Chrome OS, but that wouldn't preclude unifying the company's assorted operating systems. If Google's really serious about this move, an amphitheater full of developers seems like the ideal place to explain what's going on.

Chances of Happening at I/O: If Not Here, Then Where?

Project Tango

Back at CES in January, Lenovo announced plans to deliver the first phone based on Google's Project Tango, which looks to bring spatial awareness to Android devices using advanced visual recognition tech and camera mapping abilities. The Project Tango phone is supposed to come out in summer 2016, and if you haven't looked at a calendar lately, summer is almost here.

Lenovo previews its Project Tango phone at CES 2016.

Lenovo previews its Project Tango phone at CES 2016.

If you want more proof that Tango is ready to dance, get a load of the schedule for I/O, which is dotted with Tango-related topics including a session called "What's New with Project Tango." Google is also promising a demo area for Project Tango that shows how its 3D depth-sensing technology can be applied to daily life.

There's likely more to this week's Tango talk than just another look at an already-announced phone, though. Bloomberg reports that Google is planning to expand Tango's reach. Google hopes to use the tehcnology behind Tango to provide 3-D maps of the inside of buildings, and it's also eying potential uses with virtual reality. Perhaps the company will use I/O as a forum for outlining those ambitions.

Chances of Happening at I/O: Oh, It's On

Other Possibilities

It's been a while since we've heard about Google's efforts to relaunch its Google Glass augmented reality headset as an enterprise device; we could get an update on the company's Project Aura efforts, which would address what Google is working on with wearables. The similarly named Project Ara addresses modular smartphones — something in the news lately with the release of LG's modular G5 phone. We're likely to get an overview of what progress Project Ara is making as well. And Google seems likely to use I/O to give everyone an update on Android Pay, with all signs pointing to the mobile payment service reaching the U.K.

Let us know in the forums what you're hoping to hear about at Google I/O.