Smart Dis­play UI is peek at voice-cen­tric Fuch­sia evo­lu­tion

An­droid will be pretty in pink, writes MICHAEL SI­MON

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The first Smart Dis­play for Google As­sis­tant has launched in the US and is set to reach these shores soon – we’ll have a full re­view next month. A joint ef­fort be­tween Google and Lenovo, it kicks off a new wave of screen-cen­tric smart

speak­ers that look good on a counter, sound good when play­ing mu­sic, and make the Echo Show less good by com­par­i­son.

But the best part of the Lenovo Smart Dis­play isn’t the in­dus­trial de­sign or 10in Full HD dis­play. It’s Google’s in­ter­face. Where the As­sis­tant and Alexa in­ter­faces on An­droid phones and the Echo Show are rudi­men­tary vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions of our queries, the Smart Dis­play doesn’t just let you see what Google As­sis­tant is think­ing – it ex­pands and en­hances As­sis­tant’s abil­i­ties with an in­tu­itive mar­riage of touch and voice.

Google’s smart dis­play UI com­bines the ele­gance of Ma­te­rial De­sign with the pro­fi­ciency of An­droid and the smarts of An­droid Things into an OS that feels like the fu­ture. And it very well may be. It’s smart, light, and re­spon­sive in all the ways An­droid isn’t, and it gives Google As­sis­tant a real plat­form for de­vel­op­ment, one that might be com­ing to a phone near you.

From Ro­bot green to As­sis­tant pink

One of the tech world’s worst-kept se­crets is that there’s a hid­den project deep with Google’s labs called Fuch­sia that rep­re­sents the fu­ture of An­droid and Chrome OS. Ac­cord­ing to nu­mer­ous re­ports, the plat­form has been in de­vel­op­ment for a num­ber of years, but re­cent ev­i­dence sug­gests that it’s closer than ever to re­al­iza­tion.

In a re­port ear­lier in July, Bloomberg News had this to say about Fuch­sia: “At the mo­ment, An­droid, which was de­vel­oped when phones were just be­gin­ning to use touch screens, is also not built to han­dle the

type of voice-en­abled apps that Google sees as the fu­ture of com­put­ing. So Fuch­sia is be­ing de­vel­oped with voice in­ter­ac­tion at its core. The de­sign is also more flex­i­ble in that it ad­justs to mul­ti­ple screen sizes – an at­tempt to cater to the new prod­ucts, such as tele­vi­sions, cars and re­frig­er­a­tors, where Google is spread­ing its soft­ware.” The key here is flex­i­bil­ity for vastly dif­fer­ent screen sizes, some­thing that An­droid doesn’t re­ally have.

That’s the beauty of Google’s Smart Dis­play OS. While it’s nowhere near as pow­er­ful nor ver­sa­tile as An­droid, it’s easy to see how it could scale down to a phone with Google As­sis­tant at its core.

As it stands on An­droid, Google As­sis­tant op­er­ates on a sep­a­rate layer on top of the sys­tem, help­ing

you nav­i­gate deep menus and apps, but ba­si­cally work­ing as a short­cut to things like Chrome, Set­tings, and Spo­tify. On the Smart Dis­play, As­sis­tant is cen­tral and vi­tal to the ex­pe­ri­ence, tak­ing you places you can’t get to with your fin­gers. You can still tap and swipe the screen, but As­sis­tant runs the show, pop­ping up when you need it and dis­play­ing ex­actly the in­for­ma­tion you asked for. You might be able to get the same in­for­ma­tion by queu­ing As­sis­tant on your phone, but on the Smart Dis­play there’s a tight level of in­te­gra­tion with the whole sys­tem that gives Google’s AI a star­ring role.

I used this ex­am­ple in my re­view, but I’ll re­peat it here: When you ask, “Hey Google, what’s an Al­losaurus?” it will tell you that it’s a di­nosaur that

lived 150 mil­lion years ago just like on your phone. The Smart As­sis­tant takes it fur­ther from that point, show­ing a pic­ture, break­ing out ad­di­tional facts such as the di­nosaur’s es­ti­mated land speed, and of­fer a se­ries of links for deeper ex­plo­ration. It’s all done on the fly, pulling in­for­ma­tion from Wikipedia, pho­tos from Google Images, and de­cid­ing what’s rel­e­vant and rel­a­tive. It’s one of the smartest in­ter­faces I’ve ever seen, and it sure seems like a pre­cur­sor to the kind of smart think­ing we’re go­ing to get in Fuch­sia.

See­ing is be­liev­ing

Be­cause no one wants to talk to their de­vice all the time, Google’s Smart Dis­play in­ter­face is just as good with the mi­cro­phone off. Swipe to the left, and you’ll get a se­ries of cards spot­light­ing the things your can do: mu­sic, videos, recipes, and so on. It’s very de­vice-spe­cific, but it’s also a foun­da­tion for a fu­ture uni­fied sys­tem that scales across a num­ber of de­vices and re­lies less heav­ily on tra­di­tional apps.

We’re al­ready see­ing a change in how apps are pre­sented, with An­droid P’s hor­i­zon­tal card sys­tem and ges­ture-based nav­i­ga­tion. The Smart Dis­play’s in­ter­face lets you switch among and in­ter­act with apps us­ing a slider that’s sim­i­lar to Ap­ple’s home in­di­ca­tor. An­droid P is less about open­ing and clos­ing apps as it is about pro­mot­ing them to the sys­tem level, where we can in­ter­act with them with­out need­ing a full launch.

A sim­pli­fied, stream­lined sys­tem is also at work on the Smart Dis­play. It re­sem­bles the one Ars Tech­nica played with when it in­stalled the Fuch­sia source code

on a Pix­el­book: “The home screen is a gi­ant ver­ti­cally scrolling list. In the cen­tre you’ll see a (place­holder) pro­file pic­ture, the date, a city name, and a bat­tery icon. Above...are ‘Story’ cards – ba­si­cally Re­cent Apps – and be­low it is a scrolling list of sug­ges­tions, sort of like a Google Now place­holder. Leave the main screen and you’ll see a Fuch­sia ‘home’ but­ton pop up on the bot­tom of the screen, which is just a sin­gle white cir­cle.”

That’s wildly dif­fer­ent than An­droid as we know it, but it makes sense. If voice is go­ing to take on a big­ger role within the sys­tem, there needs to be less of a tra­di­tional home screen and a greater re­liance on Google As­sis­tant as the main nav­i­ga­tor. That’s how it works on the Smart Dis­play, where you rarely need to

go ‘back home’. Once you’re done with your query, just walk away, let the home screen (or lock screen in An­droid par­lance) ap­pear, and the whole sys­tem re­sets. It’s faster, lighter, and more in­tu­itive than any sys­tem that runs on a mo­bile phone.

If and when it’s ever re­leased, Fuch­sia prob­a­bly won’t look at all like the OS on the Smart Dis­play. Still, what we see on Lenovo’s new de­vice could be the start of a whole new world for Google, not just for As­sis­tant but for An­droid, Chrome, Wear OS, and pretty much every­thing else that runs on a screen. And I can’t wait to get my hands... er, voice on it.

The Smart Dis­play uses cards to bridge the gap be­tween touch and voice

Google As­sis­tant has never been smarter than it is on the Smart Dis­play

The main screen on the Smart Dis­play has short­cuts not apps

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