Chris Turkstra, director of Google Assistant, sat on a couch in a Renaissance hotel suite in Las Vegas on Sunday and started to chat with what was essentially your family's old kitchen TV on steroids.
On a side table to his right was the Lenovo Smart Display, more or less a Google Assistant-powered smart speaker with a built-in touchscreen. The gadget is one of four new smart displays -- made by Sony, Samsung-owned JBL, LG and Lenovo -- that Google and its partners unveiled Monday at the CES tech show in Las Vegas.
The devices do everything you can do with a smart speaker, like play music and operate your connected lights, but they also let you make video calls, watch YouTube videos and look at photos, all using voice controls.
"Our thinking is that over time, this is how people will interact with technology," Turkstra said of the voice-controlled device.
You may have seen a gadget like these smart displays before, since Amazon unveiled a similar concept in the Echo Show last May. With Google showing off a set of four additional smart display devices, a large segment of the tech industry is now betting that a lot of us want a touchscreen stationed at our kitchen counters and shared with the whole family to run our connected smart home gadgets and check calendars, directions and local restaurants.
It's a different vision of technology than the highly personalized and up close one we're used to with phones and, despite all these companies' efforts, it's hard to say if it will catch on.
But, with the success of smart speakers, these companies see touchscreen displays as the next logical progression for voice computing, allowing customers to do more (and perhaps shop more) using their voice-controlled gadgets.
"We worked with Google to go past just voice," said Carly Okerfelt, a senior product manager at Lenovo who sat by Turkstra.
The new smart displays are important for Google's business, too. Amazon is currently the leader in consumer voice devices, controlling about 70 percent of the US market thanks to is Alexa-controlled Echo devices. The Google Home speakers are a distant second. As smart speakers take on a central role in operating our smart-home devices, Google needs to gain more customers, and fast, to stop Amazon from taking over the new market.
In an effort to catch up, Google already introduced the Google Home to compete with the Amazon Echo speaker, and followed up with the smaller Home Mini, which is similar to the Echo Dot. With the smart displays, Google will now have an even larger lineup of competing electronics.
No really, it's not a tablet
Google worked to ensure that consumers wouldn't view smart displays as simply a tablet on a stand, and hopefully instead as an entirely new product category. While the devices may have a similar appearance to tablets, they don't have a web browser or 4G LTE cellular connection and need to be plugged in at all times so their microphones can continually listen for the wake words "Hey Google" or "OK Google."
The devices make up for those lost features by providing larger and better speakers than a tablet, improved connections to many smart home devices and an array of microphones to pick up your voice from across the room. Seshu Madhavapeddy, a Qualcomm vice president, said his company worked with Google to create two new chips for these devices to amp up these capabilities.
Because these devices aren't intended to be used up close for extended periods of time, Turkstra walked through a series of demos that showed the Lenovo Smart Display's quickly digestible videos and images. For example, after he told the device, "Hey Google, good morning," the Smart Display turned on a light, and cycled through large images of the weather, directions and daily appointments. This information is personalized for each user, since Google Assistant can identify different voices.
To help people discover more to do with their Google Assistant-powered products, Google said Monday it added a new directory of all the "actions" available using the assistant. Amazon provides a similar kind of directory in the Alexa mobile app.
In a nod to privacy concerns, Okerfelt said Lenovo added a mute switch to its device that cuts power to the microphones and a switch to physically block the Smart Display's camera. The device is available with an 8-inch display for $200 or a 10-inch display for $250, and both are expected to be available early this summer.
Along with Lenovo's Smart Display, JBL unveiled the Link View, which has an 8-inch display. The device will be available in the summer in the US, but the company didn't provide pricing information.
Additional details about the Sony and LG devices aren't yet available.
YouTube woes for Amazon
The unveiling of the smart displays comes at a difficult time in Google and Amazon's relationship. While the tech titans have worked together plenty of times in the past -- such as when Amazon integrated Google's Nest devices with Alexa -- they are now in a public spat.
Last month, Google said it would cut off access to YouTube on Amazon's Fire TV video streamers and the Echo Show, saying it was unhappy Amazon removed its Chromecast devices from Amazon.com. Amazon soon after brought back Chromecasts to its online store, and Google said it was "in productive discussions" with Amazon to reach an agreement.
Despite the timing, Gummi Hafsteinsson, product management director for Google Assistant, said the YouTube dustup with Amazon was unrelated to the smart displays' unveiling and "are separate issues."
But, even with YouTube potentially returning to the Echo Show sometime this year, Amazon should face a lot more competition when these new smart displays go on sale in the coming months.
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