Google unveils smart canvas for Workspace apps

Workspace users will be able to tag files and meetings within Docs and preview files without switching windows. Google also made Docs files look more like web pages.

Google has started making multiple Workspace services available in each of the office productivity suite's applications. Google called the multi-service approach and the new features that come with it "smart canvas."

Along with the changes to Workspace, Google previewed at its annual I/O conference an AI conversation technology trained on dialogue and a 3D technology that makes video chatting more like an in-person interaction. Both are concepts Google plans to use in future products.

Smart canvas initially takes improved video conferencing, live captions and translations, assisted writing, and other features to its word processing app Docs. Eventually, Google will make those capabilities available in its spreadsheet app Sheets and its presentation app, Slides.

"With Smart Canvas, we're bringing together the content and connections that transform collaboration into a richer, better experience," Javier Soltero, vice president of Google Workspace, said at I/O

Smart canvas includes a feature in which people use an @ sign to tag a Workspace file or meeting from the Calendar app. The @ signs -- dubbed "smart chips" by the company -- will display the hidden info when people hover over them with their cursors.

Google did away with page boundaries to make Docs files look more like web pages than sheets of paper. These web page Docs adjust to fit the size of the window and can later be shifted to paginated view to print or convert the file into PDF.

People video conferencing on Meet from within a Doc file in Google Workspace
People will be able to video conference using Meet from within their Doc files in Google Workspace as soon as this fall.

Google added table templates, which let team members vote on topics within Docs, and connected checklists, which allow teams to create to-do lists and assign tasks. Google also added an assisted writing feature that suggests inclusive word choice. For example, it will change chairman to chairperson and make suggestions like avoiding the passive voice.

Late last year, Google overhauled G Suite into Workspace. The redesign included a feature that let people launch Meet video conferences from Doc, Sheets or Slides. In the fall, people collaborating on a document will be able to hold a video call without leaving the file.

Smart Canvas is similar to Microsoft's Fluid Framework in 365. Fluid includes a set of features that let people work together on documents while providing translation and edit suggestions. 

Along with Smart Canvas, Google presented some long-term, AI-powered concepts that could end up in Google products in the future.

Language Model for Dialogue Applications (LaMDA) is Google's rendition of a chatbot that can hold conversations that are "free-flowing" and cover a broad range of topics. At I/O, Google demonstrated LaMDA as it spoke with a person about Pluto and paper airplanes. In both conversations, LaMDA pretended it was the object and talked about its experiences.

LaMDA was trained on dialogue, so its conversations are more open-ended and have more nuance than a regular chatbot, Google said. LaMDA "could unlock more natural ways of interacting with technology and entirely new categories of helpful applications."

In addition to Smart Canvas and LaMDA, Google previewed a technology called Project Starline. Using AI and special hardware, Google created a window-like screen that lets people see each other in 3D and life-sized. Google said this technology is a re-imagining of video conferences.  

Google said its goal is to make Project Starline "more affordable and accessible" and to bring its capabilities into its suite of collaboration and communication products.

Maxim Tamarov is a news writer covering mobile and end-user computing. He previously wrote for The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C., and the Sun Transcript in Winthrop, Mass. He graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in journalism. He can be found on Twitter at @MaximTamarov.

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