Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home are so last year. This year is all about smart displays: Smart speakers, except they’ve got a screen and camera for video calls.

This week will see three new ones in the US: Facebook just unveiled the Portal, Amazon opened pre-orders for the second generation Echo Show, and Google is (at this writing) hours away from unveiling the Google Home Hub.

But Chinese companies have been building smart displays for a while, with Baidu and leading the way -- despite the fact that Chinese consumers have shown little appetite for smart speakers yet, according to the China Internet Report 2018.

China Internet Report 2018

Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, was the first to launch a smart display in the country. Named “Xiaodu Zaijia”, which loosely means “Little Baidu at home”, it was based on the company’s AI assistant DuerOS. It has a 7-inch display, and is priced at only 699 yuan (US$102), and let users made video calls and access Baidu’s video platform iQiyi.

It has a function named “remote surveillance” that’s similar to Echo Show’s creepy “drop in” feature, which allows you to permit other people to just… appear on your screen whenever they want. Unlike a regular phone or video call, there’s no ringing, and you never have to “answer” the call -- they just appear instantly. Which, yeah, creepy.

From left to right are JD’s Dingdong Play, Baidu’s Xiaodu Zaijia and Kinstalk M10 from startup Shuji. (Picture: JD, Baidu and Shuzijiayuan), which had the biggest share of China’s domestic smart speaker market in 2017, also has a smart display called Dingdong Play. It costs 1,699 yuan (US$250), has a 8-inch screen, and also lets users make video calls and watch videos on iQiyi… which is strange, because iQiyi is owned by Baidu, but is owned by Tencent -- you’d think they’d use Tencent Video instead.

Oh, and it claims to allow users to try on virtual makeup.

But it’s not just the big guns. Hardware startup Shuzijiayuan’s latest product is a smart display called Kinstalk M10, which drew some attention earlier this year because it’s powered by Tencent’s voice assistant Xiaowei -- which let users contact their WeChat and QQ friends on the speaker, and gives them access to Tencent’s music and video streaming service. It has a 10-inch display and costs a pricey 2,399 yuan (US$353), more expensive than the Amazon Echo Show.

IDC analyst Sophie Pan told us that smart displays can make voice assistants easier to use, but adding a display means that the products tend to have higher price tags, which may stop them from attracting buyers.

There’s no available shipment data for the smart display sector, so it’s hard to say how they’re doing. But with smart speakers, Chinese consumers seem to prefer cheaper ones.

In the second quarter of 2018, Alibaba and Xiaomi took nearly 90% of China’s smart speaker market with their aggressive price cuts -- neither company has released smart displays. Baidu’s stylish Raven H, which costs 1,699 yuan (US$250), received rave reviews but sold poorly as it failed to compete with its cheaper competitors.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)