OK Google, time for a new voice assistant

A few months ago I wrote of my experiences with Google taking over my house, and even the introduction of the Google Home appliance into the central living area (the kitchen).

Last week the march was permanently halted, and rolled back.

 

OK Google, say goodbye

The Chromecast devices were actually removed a number of months ago as I found the experience or initially selecting an audio device slower than I would have liked. In fact it was faster to get the Chromecast with Spotify to work from an iPad than from an Android phone. I also found it fiddly having a second device present being the actual speaker – it was simply too many cables and pieces for something I wanted to be hidden and neat.

The Chromecast Audio devices were removed and replaced with quality Sonos speakers, and I have not looked back.

Next on the list was the Google Home. Overall the device works well especially as the language and functionality is localised, but it was the latter that also started to frustrate me. The same experience we often find out of Microsoft or Apple of the US being first was the same with the Google Home – it couldn’t do many things that it’s US version could.

In fact it couldn’t do basic things like reminders which was incredibly frustrating, as I could hold down the home button on my Android phone and speak to the same Google Assistant – where reminders would work.

Another key issue was the walled garden Google had built. While it played nice with some vendors, it didn’t with others (read: Microsoft). I do not use the Google ecosystem of apps and services much and as a result was limited in what I could do. I found it annoying that the only way to get my calendar ready by the Google Home was to use a workflow tool that would copy events from my Office 365 calendar to my Google Calendar.

What really got me over the edge was having to say “Hey Google” or “OK Google” to get its attention. I already don’t like it when people say they “Google” something (I’m a purist who comes from a time when Google didn’t exist but the web did, as did other search engines) – so I certainly didn’t want my daughters saying it all the time.

 

Hey Cortana?

There was little chance I would wait for a Cortana-powered speaker, especially when Microsoft appeared to be retracting from its consumer device ecosystem (eg. Band, Lumia) other than the Xbox and miscellaneous hardware.

However Microsoft and Amazon did announce a partnership to allow Alexa and Cortana to communicate and work together. That old chestnut of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” comes to mind.

 

Alexa, tell them why we’re friends now

I chose to test the waters with Amazon given they were first to market and had more hardware options.

My initial test relied on an Amazon Echo Dot plugged into an external speaker, as the built in speaker was not ideal for playing music.

Functionality wise Alexa gave me most of what I wanted out of the Google Home: play music, set reminders, tell me the weather, and other little things. One of the biggest benefits is I don’t have the call the device “Amazon” (although that’s an option, as well as a few other choices)!!

Unfortunately Amazon hasn’t launched in Australia so we have the US language pack running which presents a few challenges around understanding the occasional request but for the most part there are no issues. It’s expected that Amazon will launch their delivery service in Australia before the end of 2017 so the hope amongst fellow Alexa users down under is that a the English (Australia) language will be made available as well as localised services (eg. traffic, weather, etc.)

When I previously wrote about my experience with the Google Home I lamented the lack of integration with Sonos. Thankfully Amazon and Sonos recently launched their integration, and while it doesn’t support Spotify commands yet I can at least ask Alexa to stop playing the track on Spotify which is already playing out of Sonos speaker. Hopefully more functionality will come soon.

A key aspect of the attraction to Alexa was the amount of skills it boasts. While many of these are obscure apps that I won’t use (eg. Game of Thrones quotes, Major League Baseball stats, etc.) there are a number of skills and integrations that called to me:

  • Ability to control my wireless light bulbs without the need for a hub/controller or mobile app
  • Having my shopping list items and task list synchronised with Todoist (which required us to migrate away from Wunderlist)
  • Integration with Plex
  • Broad range of applets on IFTTT

Alexa also has a larger range of built-in songs when you ask it to sing a song, including a humorous one about losing connectivity to the cloud and not being able to perform actions.

My current setup now consists of the Echo Dot as well as an Amazon Tap which is truly wireless as it has a built-in battery which allows us to take Alexa outside when we’re playing in the yard with the kids.

 

They key reason I bet on Amazon is that they have ultimately failed in the consumer device and ecosystem space, and know that they need to partner up in order to survive. Microsoft to a certain extent is in the same boat, but I don’t expect their Cortana-powered device will have a long life whereas Amazon just released an even bigger range of devices.

The only challenge Amazon will have is where a technology company becomes a bully and blocks them from using its service. This happened quite recently with Google ripping the YouTube app from the Amazon Echo Show – which is quite similar to something they’ve done before.

So now the Google Home has gone to live with a friend who already has one and wanted an additional unit for upstairs, and I’m thankful we don’t have to use the term “Google” in our house any more.

Week 1 with the Google Home – becoming part of our daily routine?

Read the previous post to see my first experiences with the Google Home.

Initial observations of our changes in behaviour found that we weren’t bothering to look for things off our phone, but now asking the Home to answer them. On one hand this is good because as parents we are spending less time with a phone in our hand (something my wife and I keep to a minimum in front of the kids anyway), but on the other hand this goes to further dumbify us as we don’t really use our brains to look things up – we just ask the device. What learned behaviours does this mean for our two daughters who are five and three years old? They already know to talk to the Xbox One but that is very limited (eg. “turn on”, “open Netflix”, “play My Little Pony”, etc.), whereas with the Google Home they can ask virtually anything it can search on the web. So instead of being like our generation or those either side that actually know how to research things – will our kids just walk around and ask things, expecting something to hear their request and obey it?

The Google Home supports up to six different registered users, which is great. In our house, we only have two being my wife and I (our kids are far too young to have a Google account). It does appear that the Google Home will listen to anyone which is great on one hand, but can be challenging on the other as anyone can walk up to it and get it to change the music or skip a song. In the olden days this may have resulted in a physical altercation over a music player such as a stereo however was not really an issue with the Spotify + Sonos combo. Now however our kids can come up and switch from Muse to the Moana soundtrack. As parents this is a bit challenging because instead of telling our kids to wait for the song to finish, they can walk up and simply change it themselves.

Training the device is quite simple – each registered users only has to say “OK Google” and “Hey Google” twice each and you’re done. It would be great for parents if we could disable any voices other than registered users so we could stop the device from responding to the kids when we don’t want them to.

Also beneficial would be a “safe mode” that would stop our kids from asking questions that are inappropriate for their age.

Day 3 (Monday 24/07):

  • 5yo daughter has become “Home-aware” and has observed our language. On Monday morning, she started with a bout of “Tell me a joke” for several minutes straight, then “Play “Get Back Up” Again from Trolls”, and upon finishing the song she immediately followed it up with “Play the Trolls soundtrack”.
  • Questions such as “what time should I leave to get to the city” or “how long will it take me to get to the city” returned responses that it couldn’t help me at this time. Memories of HAL 9000 and Dave Bowman talking sprang to mind.
    • Tried a more specific question like “how long will it take to drive to Melbourne” and received a suitable answer.
  • Left the house for a meeting. Wondered if this was the point where Ultron takes over Jarvis. Remembered I have no home automation so should at least be able to get back in the house.
  • Brought kids home from daycare, 5yo immediately walked in and asked the Home to play the Trolls soundtrack again. Is there a way I can prevent it from playing certain things??
  • Discovered that all music selections register to my Spotify account as the wife did not have her account linked, and the kids don’t have one. Quickly linked the wife’s Spotify account so her music preferences wouldn’t affect how Spotify thinks about me.

Day 4:

  • Kept wanting to say “Xbox” instead of “Hey Google” as I’m so used to talking to the Xbox One.
  • Being able to talk to the device allowed me to be more creative: while eating breakfast with the family I asked the Home to play “Polynesian reggae” for some background music. Was not disappointed. Decided to create a “breakfast mix” playlist in Spotify.
  • Father-in-law came over for a coffee. When explaining the device to him I saw a look in his eye akin to “you kids these days and your toys, back in my day…”. He spoke to the Home for a bit, it worked, but I felt forever judged (although he’s come to expect this from me).

Day 5:

  • Away from home for work travels. Am hopeful the family is still alive.

Day 6:

  • Still away from home for work travels. A call with them in the morning confirmed that the AI had not taken over the house and removed them so that it could be with me.

Day 7 (Friday):

  • Worked from home in a separate room from the Google Home most of the day. Had to use my keyboard and mouse to do things – I wondered how we lived before voice assistants. I could have used Cortana but it’s never been the same since I stopped wearing my Microsoft Band and using a Microsoft Lumia phone.
  • Discovered a card in the box with tips on what you can say to the Home, stuck it to the wall above the device.

Day 8:

  • Started the day at breakfast with Polynesian reggae. This is becoming a thing.
  • Went on a daytrip with the family. Returned home to find that the Google Home still allowed us into the house. Reminded myself again that thankfully I don’t have home automation yet.
  • Had to change the wall-plug layout as the power adapter for the Home is quite bulky and doesn’t easily allow other things to be plugged in next to it.
  • Asked Google Home how long it would take for me to get to the cinema (had an outing with mates planned), was surprised by the answer – useful but shorter than expected.
  • Another day passed with hardly any usage of Google Home.

Day 9 (Sunday):

  • More basic questions fired at the Home, mainly weather and music related. A few general questions that could have been achieved by a normal web query, big whoop.

Day 10 (Monday, supplemental log):

  • Again, found it useful to ask it to play music. Found it annoying that when you want to turn the volume down you can either ask the Home to do it but the song pauses in the process, or use the touch rotator-thingy – but I found this a bit finicky.
  • Started to find the concept of the Home annoying (read further down the page in my thoughts after a week of usage).
  • Device has either read my mind and is resentful, or something broke as it is now erroring every time we call it (see video below). We waited more than a few seconds as instructed – no difference. Will try again later in the day. Video of the devastation.

My thoughts after week of usage

Has the device changed our lives? Absolutely not. Has it improved our lives in any way? Not really. The key difference now is that we ask the Home for answers instead of walking over to our phones (which also live in the kitchen on a shelf). Is this better? On one hand, yes as the answers are faster and we’re not physically using our phones – so we can’t get distracted by other notifications or random thoughts. However, our kids are starting to mimic the behaviour as saying “OK Google” is a lot more pervasive than walking away and checking your phone for a moment.

My wife raised the point that mornings have become about the device as we talk to it throughout breakfast. Previously we would put on an album or playlist in Spotify from our phone and have it play through the Sonos speakers. Now we were putting on more individual songs, which means the family conversation is being peppered with “Hey Google”.

This made me realise that I was not enjoying the frequency that I was hearing or saying the term “Google”. It was being said every few sentences. I remember in the early/mid 00’s when Google paid for product placement in shows like Boston Legal and characters started saying “Google it” meaning “look it up on the web”. This frustrated me as it became part of the vernacular, and now people simply “Google” things. This may be in the old nerd in me but I come from a time of a single search engine (Netscape) and later, several search engines (AltaVista, Lycos, Magellan, Yahoo, etc.) – so I search for things on the Internet, I don’t care which search engine I use.

The point is I am uncomfortable with how many times I am saying “Google” now because of the Home. Throughout the week it has become part of our conversation when in the kitchen. So much so that my 5yo daughter took the box that the Home came in and made her own version, complete with copying the error messages that the Home would say.

The fact that the device “crashed” this morning brought home a point about how much we rely on technologies. Myself, my 5yo and 3yo daughters stood around the Home trying to get it to respond and waiting a few seconds between each time. We spent maybe a whole 30 seconds, but the point is we stood around the Home waiting for it to bless us with its service.

While I don’t talk to my computer with “Hey Cortana”, I do talk to my Xbox – mainly for quick things while on the move. These are generally restricted to turning it on, off, play and pause. I can instruct the Xbox to do a great deal more, but I choose to use the remote as it’s faster and more accurate. Sitting on your rear end talking getting a device to do something while you talk to it seems wrong, especially when the remote control or phone is just as accessible. This viewpoint however comes from the fact that voice control with my Xbox and the Google Home provide very little additional benefits – specifically in Australian and in my home.

I also don’t want my daughters to learn that you walk up to a device and tell it what to do. Sure, that may be the future and more of it is coming, however as you’ve seen in the video above – when it doesn’t work you need to know how to work around that.

The other issue here is a combination of lack of features, lack of integration, and lack of device form factor. What I mean by this is that for starters the Google Home only comes in one size and price tag, so it’s not practical for me to pepper them throughout the house like I could with the Amazon Echo Dot (which is a smaller version of the Echo used to talk to Alexa). An ideal world is one where I can ask the Xbox to turn on and open Plex from the other end of the house before I get to the room – but I can’t because Google and Microsoft don’t talk to each other. Or if I could ask Google to play music through the Sonos speakers I have through the house – but again I can’t because Google and Sonos don’t talk to each other so far as the Home is concerned. As I have no home automation I can’t get it to control anything in the house.

Ultimately what voice assistants do is promote laziness and foster reliance on them. The more we ask our assistants to do, the less we can do ourselves. So in the case where the assistant doesn’t work – you become stuck.

I still like the Google Home and will hold out hope for it, but in all honesty after a week of usage the novelty has all but worn off and I’m tempted to put it on the shelf until some new features and integrations roll out. A big part of this is change management – I’ve become accustomed to using my phone and apps to do things, but a the other part of it is that the device offers limited improvement to my current way of life, so there is limited motivation to change. The cost of that improvement being my children’s behavioural modelling and making the term “Google” part of the vernacular is something I’m currently debating internally.

Given the lack of benefit and change that the Home brings, I won’t be writing a weekly experience any further as there’s really not much to write. Until such a time as integrations come along that are relevant to me, or we find that the Home has changed our lives in some way – it’s just another toy.