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.

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.