Smart displays are the new smart speakers.
A day after Facebook revealed Portal, a WiFi-connected video-chatting device for your home, Google has announced Home Hub, a new 7-inch smart screen that acts as a voice-controlled conduit for the Google Assistant.
It’s Google’s first smart home gadget that’s comprised largely of a touchscreen display, after having launched three different display-free smart speakers over the past couple years. The Home Hub is also part of Google’s larger strategy to make its virtual assistant infinitely more useful, and also, to get its tech into every facet of your life that it can.
Both Google and Facebook’s connected displays are coming on the heels of Amazon’s second-generation Echo Show, another smart display that’s equipped with Alexa and displays snippets of information. Lenovo and JBL also make smart displays that work with Google’s Assistant. But unlike all the other smart displays, the Google Home Hub doesn’t have a camera for video chatting—something Google says wasn’t aligned with its larger goal of having the Hub work in every room of your home. Like, say, your bedroom.
The Google Home Hub’s physical form was inspired by a photo album, says Micah Collins, a director of product management at Google. The Hub’s portrait orientation; its white border, rounded gently at the edges; the RGB sensor at the top of the device, which prompts the display to auto-adjust its brightness and temperature—all of this was designed with photo-showing in mind. The Hub has a floating design, with the 7-inch display hovering slightly in front of its lower half, where the speaker is housed.
The Home Hub isn’t just a digital photo frame. It’s a full-blown display for Google Assistant.
Google is launching two new photo features in its Google Photos app that are optimised for the Home Hub. One is called Live Albums. You can select the people you want to appear in Live Albums, and Google will use artificial intelligence to pluck photos with those people in them and share them to your Hub’s home screen. (Google says it filters these photos for “appropriateness,” which sounds like a news story waiting to happen.) Another photo feature is called Recent Highlights, which as the name suggests, shows the best recent photos from your Google Photos account.
But the Home Hub isn’t just a digital photo frame. It’s a full-blown display for Google Assistant. It has two far-field microphones and a single speaker driver, so you can talk to the Assistant and it can talk back to you. You can also swipe and tap your way to answers, or to specific apps.
These apps are largely Google apps: It has Google Search, Photos, YouTube, Duo (for voice chatting), Calendar, and Maps running on it. You can use it to control your Nest products. Buyers of the Home Hub will also get six months free of YouTube Premium, Google says.
There will be integrations with other apps (like Uber and Tasty) so the Home Hub can perform non-Google “actions.” But if you just want to Google a Blue Apron recipe, check Twitter, or perform some other action that’s not available in one of those Google apps, you can’t do it. And the Home Hub won’t ship with a browser.
“This is really purpose built for ambient help at home,” said Ashton Udall, another product manager for Google Home products. In other words, it’s not meant to be a tablet, or a be-all device; it’s really supposed to be an extension of the Assistant.
The Google Home Hub ships on October 22, and will cost $149—a steal compared to the higher price tags of the Amazon Echo Show ($230) and larger Facebook Portal ($349). (A smaller version of the Facebook Portal is $199).
Home Sweet Home
In a briefing last month, Google really emphasized its belief that the Home Hub is a product that can go anywhere in the home without being disruptive. That’s one of the reasons it didn’t include a front-facing camera on the Hub, which would have enabled video chatting but also might have unnerved customers, especially given the concerns that exist around Google’s access to its users’ private data.
Another nod to the use-it-anywhere philosophy can be found in the auto-adjusting display brightness, a feature Google is calling “Ambient EQ.” During the demo of the device, Udall turned off a lamp in the room, and the Home Hub’s display dimmed. If you’re using it as a bedside device, it shows a barely-there clock in a dark room.
“We had a mantra of, ‘No more black boxes, no more blinking lights, no more blue screens,'” Udall said. “We need to respect people’s environments and give them peace of mind.”
The Hub also supports multiple Google accounts and recognizes different voices, as do Google’s other home products, so it’s supposed to be a shared device among family members. Amazon’s Echo does this as well.
Google may have been wise not to include a camera in this first iteration of its own Home Hub, and the Hub’s relatively low price might just introduce this kind of display to a new customer set who never would have considered a “smart display” before. These smart displays, more so than tablets or smartphones, are really only as valuable as the virtual assistants they host. In Google’s case, that means it’s very smart. But for some consumers, especially those who get creeped out whenever they’re reminded how much Google knows about them, the Home Hub may be too smart.
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