Google is giving its smart displays new touch controls

Google is updating the look and functionality of the software on its Assistant smart displays in a significant way. Starting this week, smart displays such as the Nest Hub and those made by third-party companies will be updated with a new home screen experience.

The biggest of these changes is the new interface. Instead of sticking to a one-page layout with all your notifications and cards lined up horizontally, Google’s smart displays will now have five tabs at the top the following sections: Your Day, Home Control, Media, Communicate and Discover.

Your Day will change depending on the time and say Your Morning, Afternoon or Evening, for example. It will show your upcoming events and reminders, along with cards for things Google you’ll need. For example, in the morning, it’ll display the weather report for the day, but at night, it’ll give you the forecast for the next day instead. It’ll also offer shortcuts for turning your connected appliances on or off, as well as a speed dial for your favorite contacts that you can set up.

The Home Control tab is where all of the smart home controls reside, while the Discover tab is basically a place for Google to advertise new features or content to you, based on your search history and usage patterns.

What isn’t changing here is the primary screen that shows up when you’re not interacting with the smart display. That remains a slideshow of photos or a static clock, depending on your preferences. I’d have loved to see the option to make it an always-on smart home dashboard displaying weather, calendar, smart home controls, and camera feeds in one place at a glance.

In addition to the new interface, Google is also adding a dark mode that will turn on automatically depending on time of day, the room’s ambient light, or that can be manually selected. A new sunrise alarm will gradually increase the brightness of the screen and the volume of your alarm to make it easier to wake up in the morning.

The Communicate tab offers options to Duo call your favorite contacts, while Discover surfaces articles and videos you might like. While it might seem strange to introduce more touch-based interaction to a voice-centric product, Google believes the updates might help smart displays leap forward.

Currently, “we’re in the dial-up internet phase of smart displays,” according to director of product management Jack Krawczyk. “It was really novel and exciting and had all of this promise, but it wasn’t necessarily fully unlocked.”

It’s not just the new touch interface that could make Google’s smart displays more useful. When the company added Meet and Zoom integrations, it made these devices more helpful for conference calls from home. Now, Google is letting users add up to five Meet accounts so they can not only share with other household members but also keep both work and personal profiles on one display. When you’re taking these calls, too, you’ll soon be able to choose a four-person grid layout and pinch and zoom to see the details in your presentation. Most of these features will arrive in the next few days for personal accounts, though the grid and pinch to zoom are set for later this year.

Finally, Google is adding one of the most requested features since the Assistant smart displays first came out: the ability to see information from both a personal and work Google account at the same time. Right now, this is limited to calendar appointments, and Google says you can connect up to five different Google Meet accounts on a single display and switch between them at will. In addition, Google Meet is getting the auto-framing features that have been available with Duo on the Nest Hub Max since its launch, as well as the ability to switch between different grid views when on a call.

Taken as a whole, these updates show Google investing more in the touch-based experience on the smart displays. While the company tells me it still views these products as voice-first, and still sees a lot of voice interactions on them, it is adding these updates to improve the experience for when you’re not five or more feet away from the device. It’s almost as if the smart display is starting to become a real computing interface, as opposed to an ambient screen that gets called upon to play music or show some information when requested by a voice command.

It’s also an extension of what Google is doing with the recently announced Google TV software on the new Google Chromecast, by collating all of your activity across its various services and presenting you with content recommendations based on that. Google says the new software will begin rolling out to Assistant smart displays this week, though it may take some time to reach all of them.

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