Bringing the Alexa experience to my car

The backstory

A few months ago, I ditched the Google Home experience from my house in favour of the Amazon Alexa virtual assistant. While not actually launched in Australia, Alexa for the most part works fine – rarely do I need to specify the country I’m in or put on an American accent to be fully understood.

Since then, Alexa devices have spread through the house. I have an Amazon Tap down the kids end of the house for portability. My Sonos speakers are integrated so we can play music throughout the house by asking Alexa from almost any room. I’ve integrated Alexa with services like Todoist for task & shopping list management, Harmony Hub to control my TV & Xbox, TP-Link wireless lightbulbs to change the colour of my daughters’ rooms on command, IFTTT for various triggers and automations, and there will be more coming down the track.

Almost a year ago we downsized to be a single car family as my wife often rides her bike or catches the train to work, whereas I work from home and prefer catching the train when visiting clients in the CBD. So, we got rid of our sedan and chose to keep our 7-seater SUV as our kids are 3 & 5 so we wanted space for both car seats, bikes/scooters/bags/camping gear/etc. and adults.

The SUV we have is a 2015 Nissan Pathfinder which for the most part is a fine vehicle, and we’ve had it for almost 2 years now without any real issue.

The issue

As a technology person, I rely on my technology to work well. The Pathfinder while having a fantastic Bose 7-speaker system with subwoofer, has incredibly poor Bluetooth connectivity. Between my wife’s Samsung Galaxy S7, my S8 and two prior Android phones, the Windows Phone I had when we bought the Pathfinder, as well as friends iPhones; the connectivity for both hands-free calls as well as music is inconsistent and frustrating – especially for phone calls.

My wife had resorted to plugging into the car via 3.5mm stereo cable which gave her music and speakerphone, but was dangerous as she sometimes had to hold the phone in order to be heard.

I chose to purchase a Parrot Bluetooth speakerphone that clips on to the sun visor that supports multiple phones – so both my wife and I could have conversations with relative safety. Music was still problematic, and I had resigned to mainly listening to the radio.

Why do this?

So why did I choose to put Alexa in the car? Over the past few months my family had become quite comfortable with interacting with the voice assistant for various purposes, most of the time without issue.

While my wife and I both had Android devices and could use the Google Assistant, it was becoming confusing to recall similar yet different sets of commands. As Google predominantly works well with Google services (read: walled garden), the experience between being on the mobile in our car vs. at home were incongruent as one worked with its own services whereas the other worked with partner services.

I went through a few different scenarios in my head before choosing to install Alexa in our car:

Use Android Auto
  • Car does not support it, so therefore would be relying on the phone screen
  • Requires Bluetooth to work consistently
Use “Hey Google” to interact with the phone
  • Different set of commands to what we use at home
  • Drains battery as it’s constantly listening
  • Requires Bluetooth to work consistently
Use Alexa app on the phone
  • Not able to be installed on phones in Australia (yet)

* Some other generic (non-Google or Alexa) questions are down the bottom of this post

In fact, by choosing not to use the Google Assistant while in the car, it meant that to play music or set reminders we had to take our eyes off the road – which is dangerous.

One incredibly minor frustration of playing audio from your phone and using Google Maps is that driving instructions will turn the music down while they are said. (Yes, this is the epitome of first-world problems. )

By installing the Alexa assistant running on an Echo Dot in the car, we now have the same experience as a family or as individuals both at home as well as while in the car.

How I made it work

The first issue I had to address was the fact that for the Echo Dot to work in the car I needed Internet connectivity. While Americans and Europeans have had WiFi-enabled vehicles for some time yet, that is not a reality in Australia. I read an article about someone doing this in the US which helped motivate me to figure out how to make it work with an old fashioned pre-WiFi car.

Initially I considered using my phone as a hotspot due to my ample data plan, however this would mean tethering every time I got in the car which would increase the battery drain. Yes, I could plug in to keep it charged but it’s another few steps to plug in and enable mobile hotspot – which as minor as they are would get annoying after a while. The other issue is that the Echo Dot can only connect to one WiFi network – so either my wife and I would have to set exactly the same SSID and password for our mobile hotspot, or it simply wouldn’t work for one of us.

The second was power to the Echo Dot. While my car has a surprising amount of 12V cigarette lighter-style points in the front of the car (2 in the centre console, 1 in the middle thingy where you rest your arms), my concern was more around keeping the Dot running when I stepped out for a few minutes. Again, a very first-world issue – but if I was to turn the car off for a few minutes to go into a shop; Alexa would effectively forget what it was doing as it would be rebooted. So, no pause/resume of music. (*gasp*) Also the Echo Dot takes approximately 45 seconds to boot up so there’s that gross inconvenience again.

In the end my parts list looked like this:

Amazon Echo Dot $78 from eBay
4G modem $45 from eBay
4G data plan (1.5GB) $10 per month from Exetel
5200mAh power bank with pass-through $20 from eBay

NOTE: the pass-through support for the power bank is important as it allows its own battery to charge while at the same time providing power through to the Echo Dot & 4G modem. The Echo Dot has a drain of about 570mAH which means the power bank will most likely go flat overnight but will then charge back up while the car is in use. (At the time of writing the power bank had not arrived so this theory is yet to be proven.)

I had hoped that the Dot would pair with the car and being the only device ever connected would be more stable, but as expected it couldn’t even pair to the Pathfinder at all – so I had to opt for connecting it to the car via 3.5mm stereo cable.

Because of the cables I have (for now) crudely taped them down, but will look to improve that somehow at a later point.

The SSID of the 4G modem is hidden, so while note entirely secure – it is configured to go to sleep after 10 minutes so I don’t need to be concerned with excess data usage while idle.



 

Questions you might have

I had a number of thoughts before committing to this course of action, so thought I’d share them with you in case you wondered the same.

Q: Couldn’t Nissan just upgrade the firmware and give a more stable Bluetooth connection experience?

A: I had asked a number of times. Their response was that the Bluetooth software gets upgraded with the map updates. The entire entertainment system is OEM’d so beyond Nissan’s responsibility (aka “care”). I had it upgraded a few months ago but it didn’t make a difference. A number of friends who have similar models (ie. 2014 Pathfinder, 2015 X-Trail) had similar issues, and I found it to be complained about on a number of Nissan forum sites.

Q: Why not wait for the “Muse” in-car device which uses the Amazon Voice Services?

A: Because it’s not launched in Australia, and will be at some point after Amazon make Alexa officially available in Australia. I could wait, but patience is not one of my virtues.

Q: But you live & breathe Microsoft, why not make Cortana work somehow?

A: Ha!

Q: Why not just upgrade your entire car?

A: Because it’s a minor inconvenience when you think of it, however technology compatibility/interoperability/stability will play a big part of my decision process for the next car.

First experiences with Google Home (in Australia)

The Google Home was made available in Australia late last week. I had wondered to myself a few times which device I would get – Amazon Alexa or Google Home. The fact that the Home is now available in Australia and the Alexa is nowhere to be seen (let’s not even mention Cortana at this point) made the choice for me. For those in the USA who have already had this technology available for quite some time – feel free to stop reading any further.

While I’ve only used the device for less than a day and a half there have been a lot of learnings. Just a quick re-cap of our technology setup:

  • Both my wife and I have Android phones
  • Our entertainment system centres around an Xbox One
  • We did have Chromecast devices throughout the house, but found that the initial connection lag from Spotify was too long so I replaced them with mixture of Sonos speakers
  • Our personal email accounts are in Office 365, and our workplace technologies also centre around Microsoft

So what have we found in the first day and a half of usage?

The first thing to figure out was where to place the device. I only purchased one, so I needed to put it in the area where we spend the most amount of time. Thinking about this I opted for the kitchen as that is the central zone of the house.

Integration with apps and devices

Audio devices

My first bugbear is that there is no Sonos integration. The Google Home can only command Chromecast devices – which doesn’t help me as all of mine are packed away. So the first of our #firstworldproblems is the choice: do we talk to the Google Home and tell it what music we want to play, resulting in it only playing through the single Home device? Or do we make the big effort to walk over to our phone, load Spotify, and tell it to play through the Sonos speakers? Ultimately the decision will come down to whether we are playing music for the kids or ourselves and want it to pipe throughout the house, or whether we are in the kitchen and would favour a hands-free experience.

What’s slightly annoying here is that Google Play Music integrates with Sonos, so I can play music from Google’s service through the Sonos speakers – I just can’t tell the Home to do it for me.

Video devices

For video at this point the Google Home only integrates with Netflix and Stan. This is not really a loss to me as there is no Chromecast plugged into the TV anyway. I invested in making the Xbox One the centre of our entertainment experience with accessories like the TV antenna, media remote, and any number of apps with content – such as Netflix. We also use Plex for a portion of our media on the Xbox, so for now I use the Kinect on the Xbox to turn it on and load the apps I want. It would be nice if the Google Home does support Plex at some stage, as the Amazon Alexa has this “skill” now.

Calendar

Another challenge we found was that the Google Home wasn’t able to tell us anything to do with our calendar (eg. “what have I got on tomorrow?”) as it only works with Google Calendar. And as my wife and I use Office 365 in our personal lives – our Google Calendar is empty. I have managed to find a workaround for that (more on that later in this post).

Other Google features

The Google Assistant running on the Home is also different to the Google Assistant that runs on Android – so you’re not able to ask the Google Home to send a text message or make a phone call for you. Those features are available in the US but not here.

A benefit of the Amazon Alexa is that you can add things to the shopping list by asking it, and then Amazon will deliver them. As we have neither Amazon nor the Alexa in Australia this is a moot point for us. However my wife and I have centred our task and shopping lists in the Wunderlist app (now owned by Microsoft). As you can imagine there is no integration, however it seems that within Google’s own services there is no integration with its apps. Google has a shopping list functionality that the Home can integrate with, however the only other way to access it is via the web. Alternatively Google has a Keep app which provides notes and lists, effectively a lightweight mix between Wunderlist and OneNote. It would make sense for the Google Home to integrate with this as we could at least access it on our phones instead of having to browse to the shopping list page.

Other points of note

  • I’ve found that the Google Home can’t tell us about TV listings, nor is it able to set reminders – the latter being the most annoying. Since 2014 I have used Cortana, Siri and now Google Assistant to set reminders from my voice. These two restrictions may be limited to Australia which wouldn’t surprise me.
  • We found that we needed to ask our kids to be quiet before talking to the Google Home, as our two daughters are often speaking and we found this to interfere with what the Home could understand.
  • Make sure you have ample bandwidth available when using the Home. When I had some downloads chewing up the bandwidth we found that the Google Home wasn’t able to answer most questions, and Spotify playback would pause several times during a single song. Even when I capped the download speeds this didn’t seem to be enough. This makes sense, as the Google Home needs to be fast to respond – otherwise it doesn’t offer much benefit over using your phone.
  • I had to disable the “OK Google” detection on my phone as I found that its ears would prick up whenever I said that command to the Home as both devices were in the same room at the same time. While the Home does allow you to say “Hey Google” as well as “OK Google”, I didn’t want to have to remember that the former was for the Home and the latter was for my phone.
  • You can’t seem to ask it questions about your spouse. This could be due to privacy, or it could be because it honestly doesn’t know the connection to other people. Questions from my wife on “tell me Loryan’s first appointment tomorrow” resulted in the Home apologising that it didn’t know how to answer that question, yet me asking “what is my first appointment tomorrow” directly afterwards resulted in an immediate answer.
  • Interactions end immediately after the Google Home responds, regardless of whether it was successful or not. This impacts the use in two ways:
    • If it can’t answer or complete the request, you have to start again – right from “OK Google…”. There is no option to re-explain yourself or phrase it a different way without starting again.
    • If you need further refinement or clarity on an answer you have to start the whole thing again. For example, asking what the weather is tomorrow will give an answer, but it would be nice to be able to ask “and what about the day after?”.

Reading all the above you’d thing I don’t like the Google Home or am unhappy with it – but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s simply a case of the negatives presenting themselves so quickly as we discover how to work with it.

One particular aspect I enjoyed was that often when delivering an answer the Google Assistant would send more information and a web link to the Home app on the device of the user asking the question.

I intend to keep a diary of the usefulness of this device and how to make it fit in my world both from a practical standpoint, and also due to the fact that a big portion of my digital experiences are outside of Google. I also have no home automation technology, so won’t be using the Home to turn off room lights any time soon.

Google Home Diary

Day 1 (Saturday 22/07):

  • Brought the Google Home home.
  • Set it up in the home office, asked it some basic questions like the weather and issued some basic commands such as asking to play specific songs, albums or artists. So far so good.
  • Moved the Home into the kitchen, had to decide if it would replace the Sonos PLAY:1 (on top of a shelving unit), sit next to it or somewhere else in the kitchen. Opted to put it on the bench so we could see the lights in order to know if it’s listening to us or not.
  • Set it up for the wife while deflecting the “do I have to?” facial expression. Showed her how to play some songs. She immediately found it didn’t do exactly what she specified, resulting in a “how much did this cost?” facial expression.

Day 2

  • Asked more questions such as language and measurement conversions (eg. temperature).
  • Started working through the features listing to get more familiar with what we can ask.
  • Discovered the ability for it to tell jokes, also specifically kids jokes.
  • Found that the Google Home can do a coin flip for you – complete with sound effects.
  • Had 5yo daughter’s friend come over (whose father had also purchased a Google Home but he had the flu so didn’t attend). Using Google Allo he and I did converse (he’s the only person I use that app with) – they use a Chromecast for the TV so he found additional benefit there.
  • Asked it to translate an expletive from English to Russian – was not disappointed.
  • 5yo daughter enjoyed asking the Home various questions and getting answers. 3yo got frustrated as she can’t speak concisely enough to be understood yet.
  • Asked it to tell me the news headlines – it delivered a very monotone text-to-speech conversion from The Australian news headlines. I stopped it after 15 seconds due to rapid onset of “tune-out-itis”.
  • Set up Microsoft Flow to sync new events from both my personal and work calendars (both in Office 365) to my Google Calendar (link to the template), so now when I ask what I have on it can actually tell me.
  • Wife and I had several bouts asking all kinds of crazy questions – a role reversal given our kids ask us all kinds of questions that don’t make sense all day.

As the device lives in our kitchen it will surely become part of our lives. Future steps will be for me to get Microsoft Flow to sync events from my Google Calendar to my personal calendar in Office 365, and to find further use cases in a daily life beyond bad kids jokes.

Stay tuned as I’ll be posting a diary of my experiences with the Google Home and the use cases it works well with.