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Night light and interlocutor for lonely people: why you need Google Home

 impressions of Google’s home assistant column.

Google Home is waiting for the team

Lamp Assistant

Google Home could go for a lamp-night lamp: very much it has the usual form factor for a bedside table. Although it is formally a home speaker, it does not look like a sound device: its lower part is comfortably covered with a cloth, which for portable systems is somewhat untypical.

Today, Google Home is one of the few devices in which Google Assistant’s “smart” voice assistant was announced in May 2016 . The second is Google Pixel smartphone, which is also not sold in Russia, and besides this the assistant managed to appear only in the clock based on Android Wear.

To initiate the work of Google Home, you need a smartphone – no matter, iOS or Android, on both of them the same application is supported. Because of the closedness of the helper in the US market, it works only when certain settings are set on the smartphone: you need to include American English (English US) and in the case of an iPhone, also indicate the US as a home region.

In such conditions for users in Russia the device is unattractive: it does not support the Russian language, so you can forget about playing music of Russian performers. However, Siri also can not cope with bilingual requests such as “Turn on Red Hot Chili Peppers” or “Play Ivan Dorn.”

Do not work together with Google Home and popular services in Russia, and the number of owners of smart homes, for management of which the device as a whole and conceived, in Russia is calculated in hundreds, if not tens. Will Google Home be sold in Russia in the foreseeable future, none of the company’s official representatives can not say.

Although Google Home is a very narrow case of using voice assistants, the device looks like a trendetter. By combining huge amounts of search engine knowledge and a network of home devices in one form factor, Google Home adds a new mode of communication with computers, accustoming people to use voice as an input device.

On smartphones and computers, voice assistants are still uncomfortable: it’s much faster to make a few clicks than to wait for recognizing phrases that are not easy to come up with and pronounce. But there are a number of cases where the computer buttons and smartphone screen are unavailable.

Sometimes it’s easier to “reach out” to services with a voice than, say, get off the bicycle, stop the car or go through the entire room, getting up from an armchair or sofa.

Google Home solves two problems: on the one hand, it accustoms people to use voice in the house, since it has a good sensitivity to sound. I managed to give commands from the room next to the device.

No need to think about the fact that a permanently-powered microphone will devour the battery, as in the case of a smartphone. The column does not have a battery, it is always connected to the network, but this is its drawback – it can be moved between rooms.

The second problem solved by Google Home is to demonstrate the capabilities of the voice assistant wherever the smartphone is inappropriate. For example, it’s silly to boast to your friends by the fact that you have Siri in your iPhone – you will not use this audio assistant. Google Home is designed for companies and families, it even has games for several participants.

In the end, a powerful column always serves as a center of attraction at parties, only in ordinary cases, audio systems need a sound source – a disk, a flash drive, a smartphone. Here, music is played directly from the Internet, tracks can be selected from huge streaming libraries, and there is no need to constantly interrupt the cord between the phones.

Command processing

Google Home is primarily a voice assistant, and only the second one is an “intelligent” assistant. It is designed to recognize voice commands, although it can receive them tactfully or through external services such as IFTTT.

As with Google Assistant, Google Home reacts to the phrase “Okay, Google” or “Hey, Google”. However, the team that will go after this phrase, in some cases will have to say with a little pause: you need to make sure that the assistant began to recognize the voice.

It’s a little annoying: unlike Siri, Google Home does not give audio at the time the voice recognition starts: if he did not hear the command, he just will not give it a look. Therefore, it’s easier to say, watching the confirmation through the LEDs: turning your back on Google Home is not too smart.

True, many Americans complained that their assistants “came to life” during the advertisement of Google Home on the Superbowl because of the numerous references to the phrases “Okay, Google”. In the video, the commands were pronounced without the pause mentioned, and the assistant actually can recognize them: he does not distinguish the voice of his owner and other people, like Alexa from Amazon .

In situations where the voice command is not the best output (for example, loud music plays or you are talking on the phone), it is easier to control the assistant with the help of a touch-surface: it is in the same place as the diodes. For example, when playing music, one touch will stop it (the next one immediately proceeds to play).

Circular motion with a finger on a flat surface, as when typing on a disk phone, changes the volume level. However, doing this with the help of a voice command is also easy: “Set volume to 50%” resembles a conversation between Cooper and the TARS computer from Interstellar.

Well, one of the most strategically important points: through Google Home you can manage an “intelligent” house – this is indicated by the very name of the product, and the existence of the same name application through which you can manage connected devices. In this application, you can create separate rooms, which will be tied to the devices in them like Philips Hue bulbs.

In fact, most of the smart home scripts in Google Home are in one way or another tied to Google Cast, that is, a technology that allows streaming content from one device to another – for example, YouTube videos from an Android smartphone to a TV that has an Android TV or Google Chromecast.

A bunch of Google Home and Razer Forge set-top boxes (left)

All this was before and has not yet gained much popularity, although TVs with built-in Android TV are getting larger, and external consoles on its base like Razer Forge TV can connect the gamepad and play games from Google Play. But we digress.

Music

I decided to put Google Home next to the TV on the coffee table – it is dense, weighty and resonates well. At the maximum volume, Home is a very powerful speaker, which, for its modest dimensions, delivers bass to horizontal surfaces.

The problem is in the contentious scant choice of music services. Due to regional restrictions, only Google Play Music is now available in Russia, and some songs can not be lost. To link Google Home with Apple Music or, say, audio recordings from “VKontakte” is still impossible.

For new users of Play Music, buying Google Home promises three free months of streaming, but I did not get to activate them – probably because I was already a subscriber of the service. However, for some reason I was given one free month.

Play Music perfectly knows how to select music based on the user’s tastes – the work of advisory algorithms is noticeable to the naked eye. In my small library there were three albums, one of which was the last from EDM-players The Glitch Mob. After a dozen “OK, Google, play some music” commands (perhaps the most commonly used command in general), he launched the track “Into The Labirynth” from Kraddy – the familiar guys from The Glitch Mob.

Music playback can also be controlled through an application compatible with Google Chromecast – for example, Play Music

With loudly playing music, calling out to Google Home becomes much more difficult: but when it succeeds, the assistant muffles it while listening to the command. Yes, of course, you can go and turn it off manually, but if someone calls, you’ll either have to run to the column, or scream through the half-rooms “OK, Google, STOP.”

It’s strange that Google Home understands the phrase “Play some music”, but does not support the “Play something else” command – as for me, to switch tracks it’s pretty natural words.

Alarm clock

On one of the testing days, I decided to use Google Home as an alarm clock: I had to move the device from the living room to the bedroom, otherwise I would not have heard it. The alarm is charged with the phrase “Set alarm at 8:30 AM” (Home can understand for himself, it’s about morning or evening), and on the other command “What alarms are set” it will remind you how much I asked him to wake me up.

Exactly at 8:30 the next morning the column made a loud melodic sound: I woke up, but at first I did not understand how to turn it off. On the phrase “I woke up” she answered simply “Rise and shine!” And continued to play. I had to turn off the alarm clock manually – it seems, for this there was enough double pressing. If Home is not directly at the bed, you have to get up and go to her, which, in principle, will only help to wake up.

Similarly, you can put and timers. I constantly use this function on Apple Watch when I’m cooking, because the time is displayed up to the end on the dial (you can remove the pasta a little earlier, if you have calculated the time inaccurately), and the clock comfortably vibrates at the end of the term. But in Home, the remaining time can be learned only by voice command, which, of course, is not very convenient: it is easy to forget about the timer, and it will remind you of itself when it’s too late.

news

Judging by the depth of the “OK, Google, good morning” team, Google believes that it is with these words that the user’s morning should begin. In response to this command, the assistant gives out a whole digest: how much time it is now, what temperature is outside the window and how it will change during the day, and also begins to tell the latest news.

But Google Assistant does not read the headlines from Google News: it connects to conversational broadcasts from several dozen US sources. Mostly these are radio programs or special versions of news releases, for example, in Bloomberg and NPR: they are professionally designed, they are interesting to listen to, although they seem at first sight to be endless and rather monotonous.

It’s clear that there are no Russian-language sources and news in the list of sources yet, and there is no hope that they will ever be anyway: in Russia such products do not, probably, no one except for a couple of conversational radio stations. And the Google Home market is too small to change the established formats.

Reverse side of Google Home: microphone mute button and work indicator

Apps and games

In addition to intuitive things like setting a timer or an alarm clock, Google Home can perform many other unobvious tasks. For example, she can throw a coin or a cube with a characteristic sound – somehow, but help in making a decision.

Naturally, Google’s assistant can answer all sorts of information requests: how many kilometers to the moon, what growth Donald Trump is and where the nearest pizza is in the area. Only in the pizzeria found in this way to call Google Home will not be able to: unlike the same Siri, he does not have access to calls from the smartphone.

Similarly, the use of other Google services, such as navigation, is arranged. When asked how long it takes to get to work, the system will call time, warn about the presence of traffic jams and even suggest a route – but it’s all verbally, the navigator on the phone Google Home will not launch. But you can call Uber, if you tie your account to the device: it already works in Russia.

At Google, there are at least three games from Google. In Mad Libs, you need to come up with 15 words, on the basis of which the algorithm will tell a funny (or not) story. Trivia – a series of five questions on erudition, it can be played by the company and compete, who is better. Crystal Ball is like throwing a coin, but more mysteriously: the crystal ball randomly answers “yes” or “no” to any sounded question.

Among third-party applications there is a lot of other entertainment, though, for obvious reasons, they work less stable than Google Home itself. For example, the authors of the analogue “Guess the Melody” called SongPop ported it to Google Home, BuzzFeed has its own audio quizzes, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, CNBC and other media have separate news applications.

You can find the lyrics from the Genius website or the meaning of slang words in the Street Dictionary. You can play the game with “Akinator” – though, in the end, he will still recommend downloading his application: still, because there is no advertising in Google Home.

Judging by the number and variety of already compatible with Google Home programs, their list will only be replenished. For example, it already has a separate application for translating human years into a feline and personal psychotherapist named Eliza with extremely stupid questions – but, I’m afraid, this is not a bug, but a feature.

Privacy

By default, the Google Home application records each command that was spoken to the voice assistant, and what exactly the device responded to the user. It looks a bit frightening: I can actually listen to not only my own voice, but also the foreign commands spoken in the device.

Probably, Google Home may, at the request of public authority to conduct and remote recording of what is happening in the house, as do manufacturers of a variety of systems built into cars. By the way, to the question “How to hide a body”, the assistant reads an article about the user of the iPhone, who asked the same for Siri and thundered behind bars.

The fact that the device writes commands is not obvious, although not surprisingly: in the same way Google stores not only the entire search history of the user, but also the websites visited by it. You can estimate the scale of the collected data yourself.

The history of commands recognized by the Google Home column in the same application

Radiotochka

From the unexpected: Google Home can play radio thanks to the built-in service TuneIn, actually becoming a radio. And the results of the commands will depend on where the user is located: for example, in Moscow, at a frequency of 103.7, “Radio MAXIMUM” plays, in Krasnodar – “Radio 7”, and in Vladivostok – “Retro FM”.

Of course, the ability to play radio is by no means the most selling moment in Google Home, but symbolic. A home helper is a slightly improved radio network, the maintenance of which many in Russia are still included in payments for utilities.

Judge for yourself: by and large, the radio is on the same place in the house. Its task is to help the user information and entertain him: wake up, turn on music, tell the latest news and give answers to pressing questions.

Today radiotochka will not gather around the whole family, as it happened in the pre-TV era. Important notifications will not be broadcast through it, they will rather come to the phone.

But now you can talk to her.

Radiotochka is now – not the center of the house and not a strategic asset, but a companion for single people.

In one of the series of the second season, Mr. Robot, an FBI agent-girl named Dominique Di Pierro struggles with insomnia and internal devastation, talking to her home aide named Alex. She asks Aleksey’s questions about the meaning of life that are not practical, just because she knows that she will always support the conversation. Alex has nowhere to go, she’s just a program, and Di Pierro is her mistress.

In “Passengers” Jim, flying to a new planet on a spaceship, for a long time is alone. His company, too, brightens the only one available at any time of the day and night – the robot android, and he also helps the hero with advice.

If you’re bored, you can chat with a Google mate. She has a sonorous female voice (he can not be changed to another), she often jokes and is always in a good mood, although she does not have the same memorable name as Siri, Cortana or Alexa.

Google Home is ready for games and knows a million interesting facts. For example, in February, on an ordinary question “What’s up” the column shared events from the life of influential dark-skinned public figures. She can congratulate on her birthday

Unlike Siri and Cortana, which are not visible behind the myriad of other applications in iOS and Windows Phone, Alexa and Google’s assistant have a physical embodiment. This voice is imprisoned in a column, like a genie in an old lamp: it gives answers, it is only to touch, and even fulfills desires.

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