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.

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.

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