Even the busiest, damn-the-snooze-button morning still allows time for a quick “Hey, Google!” Now that frantic wail to the voice-activated Google Assistant can do more than just hook you up with the nearest Uber, it can put you face-to-face with colleagues in your office, so you can tell them in person you’re on the way.
That’s because tech innovators Lenovo and Qualcomm have found new ways to make a Google Assistant video call. Both companies unveiled their Google Assistant partnerships at January’s CES 18 extravaganza in Las Vegas, and each gives the tech goliath Google fresh relevance to our daily lives–something we are going to have to get used to as the Big Five tech giants come to dominate AI-assisted video calling.
Lenovo Smart Display with Google Assistant
Lenovo’s Smart Display is a cross between a tablet and the smart speaker tech that is currently booming. It’s a fixed unit with an elegantly curved back made of bamboo that acts as a stand, and, along with the built-in speaker which takes up almost a third of the design, clearly differentiates it from the tablet family. You won’t be picking this unit up and cradling it in your lap on the couch.
The Lenovo Smart Display is essentially a tiny flat screen TV you talk to. It has a touchscreen, but everything is intended to operate through Google Assistant voice commands–it even has Google Voice software, so it can recognize different people’s voices and operate through their personal profile. The video conferencing equipment is decent, though the built-in camera cuts out at 720p and the field of view is limited to 90 degrees.
If all that sounds a lot like Amazon’s Echo Show product, that’s because the Smart Display is Google’s first attempt at countering their slowly waking tech giant rival’s first forays into smart home video conferencing. However, Lenovo’s product is far more stylish, which is more significant than it may appear.
These products are supposed to be a permanent part of your home. Adding a screen and video calling gives them greater potential than a smart speaker, but the Echo Show is too obviously mechanical in appearance to blend seamlessly into your living space. Internet of Things products–essentially any product that connects to the internet in real time–work best when they look like part of your home’s decor, not like metallic invaders.
That is the guiding principle behind Qualcomm’s CES 18 announcement.
Qualcomm Home Hub Platform
Qualcomm is a “name behind the name” type of company. They build smart computer chips and hardware that make up the engines of products like the Smart Display. Qualcomm’s latest smart product is the Home Hub platform, which uses a system on chips that allows manufacturers to develop AI-driven Internet of Things devices. In fact, Lenovo’s new Smart Display uses Qualcomm’s Home Hub tech. The Home Hub is all about Google Assistant, which means it could be deployed in fridges, washing machines, and air conditioning units, among others, to turn your whole home not just smart, but conversational.
Importantly, Qualcomm’s tech also enables smart devices to host multimedia hardware like touchscreens and cameras, which means voice-activated, Google Assistant video calls from your fridge are a distinct future possibility. Why you’d want to make a call specifically from your fridge isn’t important; what matters is that you’ll be able to make a hands-free video call from anywhere in your home no matter what you’re doing. It doesn’t sound quite so crazy when you consider that we’d never have imagined ten years ago that we’d be standing in our kitchens saying “Hey Google” into thin air to find out the temperature outside.
Of course, partnering with Google restricts Qualcomm to the Android Things operating system and, sadly, the rather limited Google Duo video calling platform, which is a portent of how the video calling war to come will be fought.
Google Assistant Video Calls and the Rise of Big Tech VC
Internet of Things devices and smart home speakers or displays by nature must be cloud-based–no one is buying a smart lamp that’s attached to an armchair-sized server. While cloud means sleek and nimble for users, for hosts it means rooms upon rooms of servers and networks. Google has 900,000 servers worldwide, Microsoft more than a million, and the more compact Facebook has 60,000. No startup is ever going to compete with that kind of firepower, nor is any video conferencing specialist.
So, get used to doing your video calling using Google Assistant, or Cortana, or Alexa, because the smart products of the future are going to rely on their networks. Your video calling stereo may be powered by Qualcomm and designed in partnership with Lenovo, but it’s going to be Siri or one of her big tech friends doing all the talking–and the digital assistants are already starting to talk to each other.
CES 18 may have given us new ways to video call with Google Assistant, but each coming year is going to be filled with more and more, until there’s not a room, car, elevator, or even restaurant where we can’t place a voice-activated face-to-face call.