Google Nest Hub smart display

Secret Nest display feature could remove need for saying 'Hey Google'

The company is testing a feature where Nest displays listen when they sense you are nearby

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Saying 'Hey Google' or 'Okay Google' isn't the biggest of smart home chores, especially since the Google Assistant already listens for a few extra seconds, ready for your next question or command.

But regardless, Google is now looking for a way to make things even simpler, by having the Assistant listen when it senses you are nearby. This comes from a YouTube video uploaded this week showing an experimental new feature called Blue Steel, which seems to have leaked out ahead of schedule.

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Demonstrated in the video embedded below, with the Zoolander-inspired Blue Steel enabled, a Nest Hub Max starts listening (as shown by the icon in the top-left corner of the screen) without the user saying 'Hey Google' to get its attention. Instead, the user says the device starts listening when they approach it.

YouTube account holder Jan Boromeusz says in the video's description: "After detecting our presence near the device, the Assistant will be activated and we can ask a question or give a command."

The video shows how, when close enough to the Nest Hub Max, only the word 'weather' is needed to have Google show the local weather forecast. Normally this would require the user to say "Hey Google, weather".

While the Nest Hub Max is fitted with a camera for video calls, it looks like this experimental feature is using the display's ultrasound technology.

This was introduced by Google in November 2019 and works by emitting ultrasound waves that can't be heard by humans, then using the device's microphone to hear how the waves are bounced back off the surroundings. The display can then work out if you are far away or close by, then adjust how information is shown on the screen accordingly. If it thinks you are far away, text is made larger, for example.

With Blue Steel, it looks like Google is leveraging this technology to better understand the movement and location of people in front of its Nest smart displays, then activating the Assistant when it thinks someone is close by and wants to interact with it.

Of course, this introduces a fair few privacy concerns. It isn't known for now how far away you need to be for the Assistant to start listening, or what other systems are in place to prevent it listening for more time than is absolutely necessary.

But, as we said earlier, this is a feature that Google is currently testing, and which appears to have leaked out. Google may decide never to release Blue Steel, or it will choose to do so after more testing and calibration; we'll just have to wait and see.

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