7 ways Google's Smart Displays could get smarter

With a little fine-tuning, Google's Assistant-powered Smart Displays could turn into indispensable deskside companions.

Google Smart Displays
Google, modified by IDG Comm

We're living in the age of the virtual assistant. The only problem? The virtual assistant isn't always as helpful as it could be.

General dependability aside, the gadgets we've been given for interacting with Google Assistant still feel far more limiting than they need to be — particularly when you position them for use in a business scenario.

I've had a Google Home Hub in my own home office for many months now and had a screen-free Home Mini device on my desk before that. And you know what? Despite what the products' names imply, they really do have a lot to offer in a professional environment (or even a semi-professional environment like my candy-coated, squirrel-encircled work space).

That's what makes it all the more frustrating when you run into areas where these devices fail short — because by and large, the technology is there. The tools are in place. And it wouldn't take much to turn a Smart Display like the recently-rebranded Google Nest Hub (the official new name for my trusty old Google Home Hub) into a fully capable deskside companion.

With Google's fall hardware event right around the corner and the Smart Display's one-year anniversary (not to mention the Google Home's three-year anniversary) upon us — and with Google in the midst of phasing out its Home brand entirely and transitioning all of these products to the far more versatile-sounding Nest moniker — I thought it'd be worth contemplating some relatively tiny tweaks that could supercharge the Smart Display and promote it to invaluable-work-assistant status.

Grab your nearest thinking cap (preferably one with a propeller on top, if you can manage it), and let's do some brainstorming.

Smart Display wish #1: A smarter home screen

Google's Smart Displays are all about simplicity — and in their current incarnation, the home screen is about as simple as it gets: You see a collection of cards with elements like news stories, recommended songs and videos, recipes, and links to a small handful of suggested actions inside.

That's all fine and dandy, but for a device I'm keeping on my desk, it isn't exactly optimal. Imagine how handy this gadget could be if you were able to take control of that home screen and customize it for your own specific needs. It could still be simple — and could still have self-populating items by default — but what if you had the option to add and then pin elements like a quick view of your inbox, a scrollable glance at your agenda, or a short list of your latest high-priority notes and lists? And what if, at the same time, you had the ability to remove elements that didn't make sense for your current purposes?

It'd be a small shift that'd make a huge difference in the product's positioning and how it effective it's poised to be.

Smart Display wish #2: A smarter screen saver

Lemme tell ya: I love seeing photos of my family popping up on my Smart Display's screen during the day. The way the device integrates with Google Photos and is able to produce a never-ending variety of pictures featuring specific happy faces — often even from shots that were taken that very same day — is spec-freakin'-tacular.

But in my office, there are times when something a little more work-oriented might be advantageous. What if you had the option to change the Smart Display's screensaver to something super-practical — say, a floating view of your calendar, be it a daily grid, a weekly breakdown, or even a full-month overview? Or perhaps a floating series of boxes with basic details about your upcoming events and reminders?

Again, a little upgrade would go a long way.

Smart Display wish #3: A smarter on-screen interface

When I look at my deskside Smart Display right now, the only tap-ready actions I see are "Good morning" (a preconfigured routine that plays the news and gives me weather and agenda info), "Play the news," "Set a reminder," and "Play Google Play Music." There's a separate card that says "Explore more things your Assistant can do," too, but it opens up a whole involved interface that isn't exactly convenient to navigate.

What if, instead, you could find the commands you need most often — whether we're talking about adding an event to your calendar, looking at events for the coming day, pulling up a calculator, checking certain stock quotes, reviewing your reminders, or whatever else your pretty little screen-tappin' pinky might desire — and then pin those functions to your Smart Display's home screen for easy one-tap access?

Sure, you can always talk to the thing and ask it to open any of those items. But often, especially in an office, it's faster and easier to tap a screen than to have a conversation with a robot — if, that is, the thing you need is actually just one tap away.

Smart Display wish #4: A smarter calling system

One Smart Display feature that's already quite useful in the workplace is the ability to make an outgoing call to anyone, anywhere, using your own regular number. And there's an opportunity here for Google to build on that same capability and really turn things up a notch.

First, what if a Smart Display were able to receive calls, too, so you could have incoming calls to your cell number show up on that screen during the day? They'd be easier to answer and offer better audio quality than what you'd get on your mobile device, and they wouldn't require you to futz around with your phone or drain your device's limited battery power whilst speaking, either.

Next, let's take it a step further: What if the system really flexed its intelligence and routed your incoming calls to the Smart Display only when it knew you were in the same physical location? I don't know about you, but I'd buy such a product in a heartbeat.

Something like that would likely require the use of Google Fi or Google Voice in order to make sense, but with those services in place (and location data from your phone to go along with 'em), it certainly seems feasible. And building in a tie-in with those sorts of services would only stand to benefit Google, anyway — so win-win, right?

Smart Display wish #5: A smarter conferencing system

While we're on the subject of phone calls, think how helpful a Smart Display could be if it would allow you to make multiperson conference calls in addition to regular one-on-one calls.

That could happen on a couple of different levels: with the regular voice-calling feature, of course, but also with the Smart Display's Duo-enabled video-calling option. (While the Smart Display does support video calls via Duo already — and Duo itself does support multiperson calls — the Smart Display vexingly doesn't support multiperson video calls as of this moment.)

That alone could make a Smart Display worth having in the workplace.

Smart Display wish #6: A smarter note-taking system

This one seems so obvious it almost hurts, but a Smart Display should be able to take notes — not to mention allow you to pull up and view your notes and pin individual notes to the screen — and the fact that the Smart Display still doesn't integrate even with Google's own Google Keep note-taking service is just plain embarrassing at this point.

Note to self, Smart Display team: Fix this omission already, won't ya?

Smart Display wish #7: Smarter third-party app integration

Ultimately, a Smart Display is only as intelligent as the ecosystem around it. As it stands now, you can connect your Google Assistant to third-party services using a utility like IFTTT — but the manner in which those connections appear on the Smart Display is still fairly limited.

Think of the possibilities, though: What if, for instance, the Smart Display had an easy way to let you send messages to any channel, group, or individual in an app like Slack? What if it could allow you to see new incoming work-related messages on your screen as they arrived? Or even allow you to keep a specific Slack channel open and readily available to see at a glance on its home screen?

Slack is just one example, of course. What's really needed is a system not only for connecting third-party services to Assistant but also for integrating them into the Smart Display in some clever and useful ways.

We're still in the early days for this type of technology, and the systems will invariably evolve over time — but the surface-level hardware progressions we're starting to hear rumblings about seem far less significant than the software-oriented advancements that should arrive alongside 'em. As we think ahead to Google's upcoming fall event and the Smart-Display-related announcements that are bound to surround it, here's hoping we see at least some of these more internal improvements that could truly transform the Smart Display experience and make it more intelligent than ever.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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