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Five Interesting Things We Learned From Google’s 2018 Hardware Event

by IPG MEDIA LAB // 11 Oct 2018

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New “Made by Google” event reveals insights into Google’s smart home and service strategies

On Tuesday, Google unveiled a series of new hardware products at a “Made by Google” event hosted in NYC. A lot of the new products had been leaked last week, especially the Pixel 3 smartphones, so the event packed few surprises. That being said, Google’s announcements reveal a number of interesting things about the way the search giant approaches mobile and the smart home. Here is a roundup of the most interesting things we observed from this event.


Pixel Stand Blurs The Line Between Mobile And Smart Home

Given that this was a Pixel launch event, Google dutifully spent a big portion of its keynote presentation introducing the Pixel 3 phones as well as the Pixel Slate, a new ChromeOS-powered tablet. Both come with some state-of-the-art hardware specs but don’t necessarily push any boundary in terms of innovative features. However, Google did announce an intriguing new product called Pixel Stand that seems to reinvent what kind of roles a mobile device can play in the burgeoning smart home space.

Retailing for $79, the Pixel Stand is functionally a wireless charging stand that will work with any smartphone that supports the Qi wireless charging standard (the same one that Apple uses). However, when charging the new Pixel phones, it will activate a special user interface that transforms the stationary phone into a smart clock that users can interact via Google Assistant. Designed to be a bedside alarm clock, the stand would turn on the “Do Not Disturb” mode when docked in at night to ensure minimal distraction. Thanks to the presence of Google Assistant, however, it essentially leverages the Pixel phone’s computing powers into creating a voice-activated smart home experience.

This product showcases an interesting vision where the future of the smart home experience could be powered by mobile devices via charging stations or speaker docks. So far, the smart home experience has been powered by dedicated connected home devices, in particular smart speakers. But the phone that we carry around with us all day doesn’t just suddenly disappear when we get home, and there is certainly a case to be made about unifying the home and out-of-home experience with one single device for the sake of consistency and continuity.

As phones get bigger and wearable devices such as the Apple Watch continue to mature into competent standalone gadgets, perhaps soon we could take a more hands-off approach to our smartphones when we are at home. The biggest hurdle in realizing that dual modes, however, lies in creating a voice-driven UI that can transform the touchscreen-driven UI of the smartphone into something suitable for the smart home experience. And that seems to be exactly what Google did with the Pixel Stand as it promises to blur the line between mobile and smart home devices.

It’s worth noting that Google isn’t alone in envisioning this kind of fluid application of smartphones in smart home. Earlier this summer, Amazon released a special charging dock for its Fire tablets that automatically switches any docked tablet into “Show Mode,” which provides users with a hands-free Alexa experience a la Echo Show, which Amazon just updated with a whole new design two weeks ago. The smart home ecosystem has so far been largely voice-driven, and bringing mobile screens into the mix could be an effective way to convince consumers that the display is important to the connected home experience.


Google Releases Home Hub To Take On Echo Show

Speaking of Echo Show, Google is also getting in on the smart display space with Google Home Hub. With a compact 7-inch touchscreen, this new addition to the Google Home lineup promises to bring better smart home control to Google households. It comes with a neat, clean dashboard called Home View for controlling all your smart home devices by room or by device. It provides a simple, user-friendly interface that shows you the specific capabilities of each smart home device. Home View is also available via the new Google Home app, furthering pointing to Google’s intention to bring mobile into the smart home environment.

Home Hub runs on an expanded version of Google Cast, which Google now refers to as Assistant OS. It is the same interface used on the Lenovo Smart Display, the previous bestseller in the “Google Assistant-powered smart display” category. It is unclear whether Google will extend the new Cast-based OS to smart TVs embedded with Google Cast, but the opportunity is certainly there for Google to push this Assistant OS cross devices. For now, Google was able to work in some nice features that benefit from controlling the entire hardware-software stack. For example, Ambient EQ is a new feature that automatically adjusts the display of Home Hub to the light and hue in the room to make the display look more natural.

It is also worth noting that, unlike the Echo Show or Facebook’s new Portal video chat displays, Google choose not to put a camera on the Home Hub, presumably to sidestep the growing privacy concerns among consumers. In fact, Google put a physical mute switch on the back to completely turn off the Home Hub’s ability to listen in. So the Home Hub won’t be supporting video calls via Google Hangout, but it will work with compatible Nest doorbell cameras to let you see who is at the front door. At the end of the day, Google knows its biggest strength is in providing information, and it has plenty of other avenues to collect data without resorting to putting a camera in your house.

Ultimately, the Google Home product is only as smart as Google Assistant, and sadly there was no major updates announced for the digital assistant. Google did announce that Google Duplex, the impressive AI feature that enables Google Assistant to call restaurants and businesses on your behalf to book reservations or appointments in near-perfect human speech, will start rolling out to Pixel devices over the following month. No word on when they would be coming to the Google Home lineup yet. In addition, Google also announced that the Assistant will be able to screen your incoming calls to filter out the spam calls for Pixel users. This could solve a real problem that frustrate many smartphone users, and may win some good will for Duplex.

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