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Smart Home

Google Home Hub says no to smart-home cameras in your bedroom

As houses get more connected, Google's camera-less display puts smart home privacy in focus.

Google Home Hub showing recipe options

You can look at it, but it won't look back at you.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Google Home Hub sports a 7-inch touchscreen, a fabric-encased full-range speaker, a light sensor and two far-field microphones. But even more interesting is a hardware feature it doesn't have.

The $149 device has no camera, so you can't use it for video calls or taking photos.

While that omission at first blush may not seem like a big deal, it raises a handful of thorny questions about how many cameras and microphones people want to have in their connected homes and how much they trust giant tech companies to protect their data and privacy in their most intimate spaces.

The Home Hub, which Google introduced at its Made By Google product launch event Tuesday in Manhattan, is a mashup of a smart speaker and a tablet that's often called a smart display. It uses the voice-powered Google Assistant to let you play YouTube videos, check your home security camera feeds and control connected smart-home devices like lights.

The device will go up against a growing list of competing smart displays, including the Amazon's Alexa-powered Echo Show and Echo Spot, the new Facebook Portal, and the Google Assistant-powered JBL Link View and Lenovo Smart Display. All five of those devices include cameras for video chats.

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The Hub comes out at time when tech companies are facing greater scrutiny for how they manage users' data and how much of that information they keep. Just this week, Google shut down its unpopular Google+ social network after the company was forced to disclose a bug that put users' data at risk. Earlier this year, Facebook sustained a torrent of criticism after the data of millions of people landed in the hands of consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which exploited the information for targeted election ads.

Simultaneously, many of these same companies are asking consumers to add more and more cameras, mics and sensors to control their homes.

So far, smart-home customers haven't raised persistent concerns about these devices tracking them, instead focusing more on the convenience they can offer. But that dynamic has the potential to quickly change if there's ever a major breach related to the audio, video and shopping data these electronics can track.

When the Hub comes out on Oct. 22, consumers will get to decide whether they want to make the Hub a bigger success than its many rival camera-toting smart displays. Whether they side more with the privacy of having no camera or the convenience of video features may signal what direction smart home technology will go in the future.

"It's kind of less is more," said GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart, who attended the Google event. "They're omitting a piece of hardware that costs money and does raise some privacy implications."

Google's view on going camera-free

While Amazon in particular has pushed full-force into offering smart speakers with cameras, including those marketed for the bedroom, Google took a decidedly different approach with the Hub.

"For us, in general, it's not about one product or another, just the word camera -- hey, put a camera in your bedroom," Mark Spates, Google's product lead for smart speakers, said at Tuesday's event. "It's a comfort thing. For us, we wanted to make sure that you could use this anywhere in the home."

Google wanted to give customers that option after finding that people put the Google Home Mini -- its most popular smart speaker -- in hallways, washrooms, bedrooms and everywhere else in their homes, he said. Looking to build on the Mini's success and avoid limiting where the Hub can go, he said, Google opted to leave out a camera.

Diya Jolly, Google's vice president of product management, added that the company saw an opportunity to offer a different kind of smart display, after several competing devices already offered a camera. She said Google was willing to explore adding a camera to a later version, but "we wanted to see how consumers reacted and how they liked" the new Hub.

"We wanted to give users a choice of not having a camera," she said. "There are many other devices out there that have a camera, but none that doesn't have a camera."

amazon-echo-spot

A marketing picture from Amazon of the Echo Spot as a bedroom nightstand clock.

Amazon

In stark contrast with the Hub, competing smart displays are heavily promoting their video capabilities. The new Facebook Portal was created especially for Facebook Messenger video calls, and Amazon's Echo Show and Spot have been marketed for their video call functions. Amazon even included a "drop in" feature that lets people connect automatically with a Show or Spot if they've been approved to do so by the device's owner.

Amazon also created another product called the Echo Look that's marketed for your bedroom or closet. It uses a camera to take pictures of your outfit choices to give you AI-powered fashion advice. The Spot, too, is marketed as a replacement for your bedroom nightstand clock.

Privacy in focus

In a nod to privacy concerns, Facebook, JBL and Lenovo offer physical privacy shutters for their smart displays' cameras. Amazon doesn't, instead offering a button to disable the mic and camera on the Show and Spot.

"Customers have made millions of video calls this year alone, and they tell us that they love the ability to drop in from room to room within their homes or take a photo on our devices, which is why we believe the camera is important," an Amazon spokeswoman said.

"We also built these devices with privacy in mind from the beginning," she added, mentioning that when you press the microphone/camera off button, it cuts off power to both pieces of hardware. Also, a red light on the device is used to reinforce the fact that the mic and camera are off. "We will continue to learn from our customers and adapt our products to best meet their needs."

facebook-portal-plus-messenger-chat-2306

Say hi to the Facebook Portal.

James Martin/CNET

Following Facebook's privacy blunders, the company took pains to emphasize the Portal's privacy features, including the ability to turn off the mic and camera with one tap and the use of a passcode to unlock the screen.

Both Amazon and Facebook said they don't record, store or listen to your calls through Facebook's Portal or Amazon's Alexa-powered devices.

Lenovo said it doesn't collect any user data through its smart display. JBL didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

By leaving out a camera Google avoids the privacy concerns raised by Amazon's rival products and prevents a potentially messy video breach from ever happening. Amazon faced criticism for the Look, with one writer for Forbes suggesting its camera may someday be able to identify skin cancer or depression. Amazon strongly denied these claims.

"Amazon is trying something completely different," Greengart said. "I don't think it hurts Google to omit it, and for people that do want a camera, there are those options from Amazon and Google's partners."

CNET's Rich Brown contributed to this story.

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