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The future's bright: getting the lowdown on smart screens

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Looking to a smart future

What are smart screens? Imagine your personal assistant (Alexa, Google) but with a screen to give you visual feedback with your answers. These screen devices have long been talked about, and with devices like the Echo Show and the Google Home Hub now on the market, we finally have the ability to see what they bring to the table.

What is a smart screen and what can it do?

A smart screen is a free-standing device that relies on a voice user interface (VUI). Its primary input method is voice, however, smart screens can also use touch input much like a tablet or smartphone. Smart screens need to be plugged in at all times so remain static in the home much like smart speakers.

The addition of a screen to traditional smart speakers voice interface means that they are able to act as a visual aid to voice commands. The benefit of this is that it gives a visual representation to previously voice only functionality.

This can take the form of showing the amount of time left on a timer, rather than asking the VUI to read it out every time. Another example would be showing the name and artist of a song that is playing or displaying a visualisation of a map.

These small features are not groundbreaking but they are helpful when you want to know information at a glance. However, you still retain the ability to ask the VUI for the information, for situations where you are unable to look at the screen and need an audio response.

One of the most anticipated features of smart screens, in general, is the ability to search and play videos from YouTube. This functionality is great for being able to view visual content for guides or music videos, effectively turning the device into a small television for online content. The disadvantage of this is that the services that you can use are limited. Because apps cannot be installed on the smart screen, third-party music and video services cannot be used at this time.

Smart speakers also boast the ability to be able to make video calls. This embellishes the normal voice call function that is available in most VUIs such as Google Home and Alexa.

While most smart speaker personal assistants can read out recipes step-by-step, smart screens now take this further by allowing you to see all of the recipe information at a glance. You can see a written version of the step and a peek at the next step in the process along with a handy list of ingredients. Some screens will allow you to set timers directly from the recipe app. However, I have found that smart screens seem to be fussy with certain recipe sites or only able to read out certain recipes.

And finally, a passive feature of a smart screen is its ability to show photos, acting as a digital photo frame. Digital frames have been around for years but the current smart screens have this built in as a screensaver functionality.

The downside

On to the negatives of this new device type. Smart screens are tethered to a power outlet much like smart speakers, eliminating the possibility of moving them around with you. This has never really been a problem considering other smart speakers work in the same way, however, with the prospect of videos on these devices, it makes sense to be able to travel from room to room with them. Some may argue that this is what smartphones are for and I would be inclined to agree. For this to be intuitive it would make sense for media to be seamlessly transferred between smart screen and smartphone, perhaps we will see this behaviour in the future.

What about Chromecasts?

Since 2014 I have owned a Chromecast that allows me to ‘cast’ video and audio to my TV, effectively turning them into smart TVs.

I would be happy to pay for a new Chromecast with the built-in functionality to talk to Google Home and provide me with visual information and feedback. After all while not casting, the Chromecast sits idly with the time atop a screensaver image, it would be nice to use this screen for a visual of my current timers or alarms.

Do they solve a problem?

Not really. But they do act to enrich the experience of a VUI and to give the user a visual aid to most daily activities and tasks. I can’t help but wonder if this is how smart speakers should have been made in the first place. The functionality that smart screens provide is very useful and makes a wonderful addition to the VUI. I wonder if, in time, smart screens will become the new norm when it comes to VUIs.

Is this the way VUIs should have been made from the beginning? Are VUIs only one half of the coin and smart screens are filling the void that we require where voice falls down? Some argue that with the introduction of these new features we are slowly inching closer towards the everyday smartphone, and all that would be needed is a sim card and battery to turn it into one.

However, the smart screen has a long way to come before we’ll see it as widely adopted as its speaker partners; to make this technology viable, the functionality and value have to outweigh the price.

Caroline Richardson, UX designer, DotLabel

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