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Google Unveils $149 Home Hub Smart Display, Omits Camera for Privacy Reasons

Google’s very own smart display is here: The company unveiled its $149 Home Hub at a press event Tuesday in New York, touting it as a smart display that you won’t mind putting into any and every room of your house. That’s because you won’t ever have to fear that it will watch you: Home Hub comes without any camera.

The device features a 7-inch touch screen that seemingly floats on top of a base with an integrated front-facing speaker with a 4-inch woofer. The Home Hub is being made in four colors that Google has dubbed chalk, charcoal, aqua and sand, and consumers can start pre-ordering it on Google’s website immediately. It will start to ship and arrive in retail stores on Oct. 22.

The biggest notable difference between Google Home Hub and other smart displays out there, including Amazon’s Echo Show and the just-revealed Facebook Portal, is undoubtedly the omission of a camera. Google decided against adding a camera because it didn’t want consumers to question whether they’d want the device in their bedroom or other places where they might not feel comfortable about the idea of someone watching them, said Google Home product manager Ashton Udall during a recent interview with Variety: “We wanted to remove the friction for people.”

Google chose to replace the camera with something else: Centered above its screen, the Home Hub features an RGB sensor, capable of measuring up to 16 million combinations of light intensity and color brightness. The device uses the sensor to automatically adjust the brightness and color of its display to your interior lighting — something Google calls “ambient EQ.”

Udall said that the effect of this was especially notable when using the Home Hub in a bedroom, where bright displays can quickly become sleep killers. “When we talked to people, we saw that this was definitely a concern,” he said.

Like other smart displays powered by Google’s software, the Home Hub tightly integrates with the company’s voice assistant. Two front-facing far-field microphones can pick up voice commands from across the room, and the display offers up helpful information about a user’s day in a card-like interface that will look familiar to anyone running the Google Assistant on their phone.

Some of the features available via the device include access to a user’s morning commute, weather forecasts, maps and routes, Google News-based video news briefings, calendar entries and more. Asking for a recipe gives users the option for visual step-by-step guides. And it can do virtually anything a Google Home speaker can do, including making phone calls.

Left alone, it automatically displays slide shows based on your Google Photos libraries. The Google Home Hub also has direct access to YouTube — something that Amazon’s Echo Show only manages to do with a cumbersome workaround, thanks to an ongoing spat between the two companies.

And Home Hub works in concert with any Google Home speaker or Chromecast streaming adapter. You can use it to launch a stream on a different device, and for instance launch media playback on your TV with a few voice commands. Or you can play music across the Home Hub and any other Home or Chromecast-enabled speaker in your house.

Technically, the Home Hub is also a Chromecast receiver, meaning that you can cast media from thousands of apps on your phone to its screen. However, Google didn’t put a lot of work into natively integrating video services into the device. The company just doesn’t think that you will watch a lot of movies or TV shows on the Hub’s tiny screen. “We don’t see this as something that people will view long-form content on,” said Udall. “We didn’t feel like we needed to lean hard in that direction.”

Instead, Google decided to double down on home controls. The Home Hub features a dedicated control panel for smart speakers, networked light bulbs and other connected devices that Google is calling Home View. Swipe down from anywhere, and you can easily control these types of devices across your entire home — provided that they work with Google Assistant, that is.

However, the company didn’t go as far as to actually turn the Home Hub into a full-fledged Internet of Things (IoT) hub. The device can communicate with and control anything connected to your local Wi-Fi network, but it’s not capable of replacing dedicated hubs for Philips Hue lightbulbs, Arlo security cameras or similar devices, simply because Google chose not to add support for Z-Wave, Zigbee or any if the other smart-device networking protocols.

“The ecosystem of Wi-Fi-controllable devices has grown tremendously in recent years, and Hub can control 5,000-plus devices out of the box,” said Udall. “Hub gives you easy access to control all of these devices with your voice or with our unified home control dashboard, Home View. For this particular product, we didn’t believe adding a local wireless radio added enough extra value. “

In a way, the Home Hub very much adheres to a less-is-more philosophy. The device has a smaller screen than some of its competitors. That makes it less of a TV replacement, but also means it fits better on nightstands, coffee tables and crowded kitchen countertops. It has fewer IoT features than “real” hubs, but aims to work well with Wi-Fi-connected devices.

And again, the biggest and most obvious difference with rivals: It has no camera, which makes it unusable for video chats, but at the same time also a lot less creepy. That point was driven home by Google’s smart-home ecosystem senior director Michele Turner, who said that she put a Home Hub into her master bathroom to use while she gets ready for the day in the morning. “I only have it there because it doesn’t have a camera,” she said.

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