Plus a new interface for navigating features via touch
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: dark mode, and finally, the ability to see calendar events from more than one Google account.
The biggest change is the new home screen, which is designed to provide contextual information to you depending on your habits and the time of day. Instead of the endlessly scrolling horizontal list of before, Google now divides the information into five distinct sections — time of day, Home Control, Media, Communicate, and Discover — accessible from tabs at the top of the screen.
The time of day tab will change its title depending on when you’re looking at it (i.e. Your Morning, Your Afternoon, Your Evening, etc.) and it will present various cards of information that Google deems important to you at that time. That can include tappable tiles for playing music, news reports, controlling specific smart home devices, and so on. Google says that the tiles displayed on each screen have dynamic sizes depending on their importance. The media page will have larger tiles to include information about what’s playing and controls below it, for example.
Another neat trick of the media tab is the ability to see what’s playing on other Assistant speakers and displays throughout the home and control those, as well. Google says that it will include deep linked tabs in this section, so instead of just opening Disney Plus, you can jump right back to the show you were watching the last time you used Disney Plus.
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.
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.