Google speakers add displays

You’ve read about display-equipped smart speakers from Amazon, and more recently about the possibility of a similar product from Facebook. Now, it’s time to add another name to the list: Google.

Among the many new concepts and products shown earlier this week at the annual “Google I/O” developer’s conference was the official unveiling of smart speakers powered by Google Assistant.

Rather than market the products under their own branding, as Amazon has done with their Show and Spot models, Google’s technology will be featured in third party products. Among the first to arrive in July will be from Lenovo, first previewed to us back in January during CES, to be joined shortly by competitive models from JBL and LG.

Featuring an 8-in touch screen, the Lenovo model is unique for its ability to sit either vertically or horizontally. Based on the demos, it will have all the expanded powers of Google Assistant, and that, to some extent, is the real story.

Among the capabilities we’ll see as new features roll out during the year, including many that will tie to Google’s intense efforts to integrate AI, machine learning and advanced natural language recognition. For example, there will be improved and expanded integration with Google Maps that, admittedly more for use on mobile devices, will be the ability to not only chart the course for your direction requests, but show you where you are so that you may use visual landmarks to make certain that you are going in the proper direction (…something I have always needed in foreign cities!)

Another example is “Suggested Actions” such as looking at photo images, having the device recognize who is in the picture, and then, if you wish, send the photos to the person via text or email. Perhaps most interesting and useful, but also somewhat controversial, was a feature named “Duplex.” Here, when you issue a voice command such as “Get me a hair appointment for Tuesday” it will take over and not only dial your favourite salon or shop, but carry on a natural language conversation with the (presumably) human at the other end, hear the times available, match them to your schedule, negotiate anything else relative to the task, confirm the appointment, thank the person at the other end, and then, after hanging up, add the date and time to your calendar.

While the demo at Google I/O was simulated, much concern was raised in the press about the fact that there was no notification to the other party that the caller was an automated system even though it will sound like a real person. Google subsequently stated that when the feature is released there will be a notification, but concerns are still being voiced.

Google Assistant-enabled LG TV on display at event
This LG TV, shown at CES, is a possible hint into what type of display we might see on screen-equipped, Google Assistant products moving forward

As one would expect, there were many other concepts and product expressions revealed, including additional Assistant and “Android P” features, the implementation of both the Assistant and Android TV in a soundbar, first to come later this year from JBL, health and fitness features, and much more.

One notable omission from the proceedings was any mention of new Chromecast models or features. The prototype unit Google recently obtained FCC approval for, which has been talked about in many blogs and reports, was described as a “developers’ tool for Android TV”, NOT a product for public sale. We’ve put in for one, and will keep you posted as this project continues.

As most of what was shown at Google I/O will gradually be released throughout the year, there will undoubtedly be more complete and formal information forthcoming. Rest assured that will keep our eyes – and ears – open and let you know where all of this will impact our business going forward.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine.