Gadgets for humans

After the speaker wars, Google rivals Amazon with Assistant-powered smart displays

Although Google found itself beaten hollow by Amazon in the race to bring voice-activated assistants into people’s homes in the form of smart speakers last year, the company is soldiering on with its AI-powered bot – this time, with smart displays.

Google announced today that it’s partnering with JBL, Lenovo, LG, and Sony to develop touchscreen devices in various form factors for the home, with Assistant and Cast built in. That means you’ll be able to ask about the weather, play YouTube videos, rifle through your Google Photos, look up directions, and make Google Duo calls by using your voice or tapping and swiping on the screens of these new gadgets.

The concept is a lot like what Amazon had in mind with its Echo Show, but with support for Google services. The displays will be powered by Android Things, an OS developed by Google specifically for Internet of Things devices at the end of 2016.

The smart displays from the aforementioned brands will be available later this year; Lenovo’s already showing off its take on the concept at this year’s ongoing CES trade show in Las Vegas.

To take things a step further in the battle against Amazon, Google is also adding Actions to Assistant. Similar to Amazon Alexa’s ‘skills’, these are basically voice commands that trigger various functions across apps and bots from both Google and third-party developers.

Browsing through the directory of Actions, it looks like there are several from IoT device makers like Nest and Philips, as well as plenty of bots for things like dad jokes and trivia. There are a couple from app devs like Headspace and Todoist, but the selection doesn’t quite hold a candle to Alexa’s library, which has plenty more from a wider range of sources.

While Google has the advantage of connecting to its popular services and the freedom to partner with other gadget makers to hit the mainstream with smart displays, Amazon has some strengths too.

It already has two screen-equipped devices on sale in the US (the Echo Show and the smaller Echo Spot), and has already begun selling Echo speakers in several countries, so it might be able to move faster in rolling out smart displays worldwide. Having outsold Google Home by three times in the US last year, it’s clearly got a solid understanding of what makes buyers of voice-activated gear tick.

Meanwhile, Apple and Microsoft haven’t yet got their act together with their smart assistants. The Apple HomePod is said to arrive in the next month or so, and Microsoft’s Cortana presently only features in a single Harman Kardon-made speaker. Samsung is also late to the game, and will likely only launch its Bixby-powered smart speaker around mid-2018. Good luck catching up, guys.

Lenovo's smart display has been imaginatively named 'Smart Display'
Credit: Lenovo
Lenovo’s smart display has been imaginatively named ‘Smart Display’

Lenovo will probably be the first brand to launch a Google Assistant-powered Smart Display: it’s lined up two models with 8- and 10-inch screens for the summer; they’ll support portrait and landscape orientations, come with cameras for video calls, and cost $200 and $250 respectively.

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Published January 9, 2018 — 06:11 UTC