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Google and Lenovo stumbled upon the killer app for Smart Displays

Lenovo’s Smart Display with Google Assistant is a glorified digital picture frame, and that’s great.

Google and Lenovo stumbled upon the killer app for Smart Displays
Even Lenovo’s photos of its new Smart Display give short shrift to its excellence as a photo frame. [Photo: courtesy of Lenovo]

It’s unusual to become smitten with a tech product that you barely interact with. For me, however, that’s what happened with Lenovo’s Smart Display.

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Sitting on my kitchen countertop for the past few weeks, the 10-inch, Google Assistant-powered touch screen hasn’t done much except cycle through family albums from Google Photos. I haven’t felt the urge to use it for video calls, YouTube videos, live TV, cooking instructions, or many of the other features that Lenovo and Google tout. But simply by acting as an always-online picture frame, this Smart Display justifies its $250 asking price. (My parents, who happened to visit while I was reviewing it, already plan to buy one.)

The digital photo frame isn’t a new technology–the first ones emerged nearly two decades ago–and it may not be the flashiest reason for putting Google Assistant onto tabletop touch screens. However, by showcasing a steady rotation of personal photos, Lenovo’s Smart Display has given this entire product category a clear reason to exist.

Photo focus

Voice assistant devices are at their best when they’re removing friction. The original Amazon Echo speaker, for instance, was a hit because it took the hassle out of listening to music at home. Instead of having to tap through an app and pair your phone with a Bluetooth speaker, you could just ask Alexa to take care of everything. The less time you spent on logistics, the more time you could spend listening to music.

[Photo: Jared Newman]
In that sense, Amazon miscalculated when it bet on video chat as the foundational feature for its Echo Show smart display, which launched last year. Compared to using a phone or tablet, chatting with someone through a tabletop touch screen only adds friction. You need to stand in a particular spot to remain visible, and you can’t use already-popular video chat services such as Apple’s FaceTime or Microsoft’s Skype. Instead, everyone has to install the Alexa app, even if they don’t own any Echo devices themselves.

Lenovo’s Smart Display shows that the real focus should have been photos all along. During setup, you can select albums from Google Photos, and they’ll appear in crisp detail on the device’s 10-inch, 1,920-by-1,200 resolution display. (Lenovo sells an 8-inch version of the Smart Display for $200, which might make more sense for a nightstand or desk.) You can then scroll through those photos by swiping, or ask Google Assistant to show you specific people, places, dates, or albums.

[Photo: Jared Newman]
While Amazon’s Echo Show can act as a photo frame as well, the feature doesn’t get the same respect. Putting photo albums on the home screen requires a trip to the Echo Show’s settings menu, and even then, Amazon dims the photos and places them behind news headlines. There’s also no 10-inch model to help highlight those pictures, and in general Amazon’s Prime Photos service isn’t as powerful as Google Photos. For instance, you can’t automatically add a partner’s photos to your collection, and Google’s face recognition has also been more accurate than Amazon’s in my experience.

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Still, there’s room for improvement on Google’s end. Unlike the Echo Show, the Lenovo Smart Display can’t shuffle photos as eye candy when you request an album by voice, nor can it set the home screen to photos of a particular person (or multiple people, which Amazon also can’t do). And in some cases, Google Assistant simply failed to understand a request for personal photos, instead running an image search on the web.

But even its current state, Lenovo’s Smart Display is constantly proving its worth by digging up precious photos and putting them on display. The likely result is that you’ll stop to look at more of the photos you’ve taken over the years.

Seizing the opportunity

It’s unclear whether Google is fully aware of the potential hit it has on its hands. The company’s Smart Display website doesn’t even call out photos as a feature. Lenovo’s packaging showcases other features, such as YouTube videos and recipes, and its product site only gives Google Photos a single offhand mention.

This is understandable. Compared to chatting with friends, learning how to cook, and controlling your home, looking at photos can seem kind of boring. But it’s also the rare activity that isn’t better executed on a phone or just as easily accomplished on a cheaper no-screen smart speaker.

Besides, Google Photos already has a huge built-in audience. As of May 2017, the service had 500 million users who collectively upload 1.2 billion photos per day. I suspect a lot of those users would happily pay for a product whose primary focus was showcasing those images in a conspicuous part of the house.

[Photo: courtesy of Lenovo]
All of which is to say that Google and its hardware partners should focus even more on photos as they roll out additional Smart Displays. (In addition to the Lenovo device, Harman and LG are launching models soon, and Google is reportedly building one of its own for later this year.)

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An emphasis on photos should help shape future products. On the hardware side, give us devices with smaller bezels, larger screens, and even better display quality, even at the expense of audio quality. On the software side, let us select home screen albums on the device itself instead of from the Google Home companion app, and provide more powerful tools for filtering which images come up. Maybe Smart Displays should even integrate with Google Photos’ Assistant feature, so that we can look through the service’s auto-generated collages and albums.

In other words, do for photos what the Amazon Echo did for music. Embrace smart displays as glorified picture frames, and then everything else will come naturally.

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