Google Blue Steel

Google is Testing Proximity Activation of Google Assistant on Nest Hub Max Smart Displays

Google is experimenting with using the ultrasound sensors of its smart displays to activate Google Assistant, according to a video posted by Jan Boromeusz, who frequently gets early access to Google smart display features. The “Blue Steel” feature demonstrated in the video above would eliminate the need for a wake word, alerting the voice assistant to someone about to ask them a question without the traditional “Hey, Google.”

Ultrasound Awakening

The most recent crop of Google Nest smart displays includes ultrasound sensing, sending out high-frequency sounds that humans can’t hear, and using the echos to measure people’s distance and location. For instance, the images on the screen adjust to where the user is, with smaller or larger images. Applying the same detection tool, it appears the ultrasound would note when someone gets within a certain distance of the smart display, waking Google Assistant, and letting the user start giving orders immediately. You can see the voice assistant awaken and await commands when he moves close to the Nest Hub Max.

It’s also not totally clear that the feature uses ultrasound and not the smart display’s camera, but the distance at which it operates would make it much more likely to be the ultrasound system. That said, naming it Blue Steel, aka the “look” of Derek Zoolander in the movie Zoolander, suggests a connection to the camera seeing the user’s face. This option’s appeal is how it would likely speed up using Google Assistant and make the process more efficient. It would also mean users could just turn off the wake word entirely, eliminating at a stroke all of the accidental awakenings that plague smart speakers and smart displays.

Private Sounds

That Google is testing out the concept on its internal operating system doesn’t mean it will be available for users any time soon, or at all. There are some obvious tripwires in giving the voice assistant the ability to start listening to people just because they are nearby. It would raise the hackles of plenty of people concerned about a privacy invasion by voice assistants. Google just dealt with an issue of Google Assistant accidentally awakening and recording people in August. That’s on top of the flurry of complaints last summer over reports about Google Assistant and other voice assistants collecting and study audio data.

Since then, Google has shifted to an opt-in version of the program for human reviews of audio recorded by its software, encouraging people to sign up in an email blast to every customer. Options like voice commands for checking and deleting Google Assistant recordings and hotword sensitivity controls to limit accidental awakenings may make people feel better about using Google Assistant. The company even rolled out a Guest Mode that lets people essentially use the voice assistant in incognito mode. Activating using sounds people can’t hear would somewhat contradict Google’s work to seem very protective of user privacy.


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