Smart displays are a unique type of product. They’re one of few gadgets with a touchscreen that people don’t touch a lot, and are instead more often controlled with our voices. But Google believes there’s potential for them to become more useful and interactive. The company is announcing a new set of features for its smart displays, including an “improved visual experience,” a dark theme, relaxing sounds, gentle alarm and Meet improvements.
The biggest of these changes is the new interface. Instead of sticking to a one-page layout with all your notifications and cards lined up horizontally, Google’s smart displays will now have five tabs at the top the following sections: Your Day, Home Control, Media, Communicate and Discover.
Your Day will change depending on the time and say Your Morning, Afternoon or Evening, for example. It will show your upcoming events and reminders, along with cards for things Google you’ll need. For example, in the morning, it’ll display the weather report for the day, but at night, it’ll give you the forecast for the next day instead. It’ll also offer shortcuts for turning your connected appliances on or off, as well as a speed dial for your favorite contacts that you can set up.
The Home Control page offers an overview of all the gadgets you have connected via the Google Home app. Each device gets its own card that you tap to switch something on or off. Google said it wants to be more predictive in its approach here, and will try to prioritize what it thinks you’re looking for.
Similarly, Media will offer onscreen controls for the music and videos you’re playing around your house. In a demo, product manager Mert Topcu showed Engadget how his son was playing the Minecraft soundtrack on their bathroom speaker, all while Topcu was in another room with his smart display. This page will also serve up personalized recommendations for music and shows you might like.
The Communicate tab offers options to Duo call your favorite contacts, while Discover surfaces articles and videos you might like. While it might seem strange to introduce more touch-based interaction to a voice-centric product, Google believes the updates might help smart displays leap forward.
Currently, “we’re in the dial-up internet phase of smart displays,” according to director of product management Jack Krawczyk. “It was really novel and exciting and had all of this promise, but it wasn’t necessarily fully unlocked.”
It’s not just the new touch interface that could make Google’s smart displays more useful. When the company added Meet and Zoom integrations, it made these devices more helpful for conference calls from home. Now, Google is letting users add up to five Meet accounts so they can not only share with other household members but also keep both work and personal profiles on one display. When you’re taking these calls, too, you’ll soon be able to choose a four-person grid layout and pinch and zoom to see the details in your presentation. Most of these features will arrive in the next few days for personal accounts, though the grid and pinch to zoom are set for later this year.
Finally, Google knows people often use smart displays as high-tech alarm clocks in their bedrooms (especially the ones without built-in cameras) and in those cases the devices should be as unobtrusive as possible. The company is introducing a new Dark Theme that will help these bright screens blend into the background at night while still offering touch access. You can set this to automatically adjust based on the ambient light or sunset and sunrise schedules.
For those who want soothing background noise played right as they doze off, Google is adding new relaxing sounds to the smart displays. You can ask Assistant to choose one or request specifics like rainfall, for example, and set a sleep timer for it to fade out over some time or just play overnight. When it’s time to wake up, you can use the new Sunrise Alarm feature to have the display gradually get brighter in the 30 minutes prior to your morning timer.
The new visual interface and features will be rolling out to all Google Assistant Smart Displays in the next few days (with some specific tools slated for a later release). As the industry continues to figure out how to make full use of these devices, Google’s latest updates provide an intriguing look at what might take hold in the future.