Google has become synonymous with search, so much so that it has even the very word that describes it. With over 20 years of experience in delivering the most optimised search, Google has become the go-to for more than just search – sending emails, navigation and watching videos. Over the past few years, Google has been working towards becoming the number one assistant to Android users as well, first by means of Now and in 2016 with the release of Google Assistance, a voice-based interaction between the user and their smartphones. The introduction of the Google Home is a culmination of all these elements put together in a single device, where users don’t even have to click a button or look at a screen.
During my brief, mid-year break, I had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with the Home and experienced first-hand how it works, and what sort of offerings it has for the average South African.
Build and Design
The overall design is very minimalistic with very few inputs and interfaces to speak of. It’s about half the height of the Amazon Echo, although it has a slightly thicker base. For guests who don’t know what the Home is, often confuse it with some kind of new-age air-freshener, which is bound to draw a few laughs. The top of the device slants slightly, which gives it more of a directional inclination when positioning it around the house. The slant is there to allow users to easily view the LED lights placed on the top, which activate when spoken to. The LEDs are positioned around the capacitive button used to turn on, off, and reset Home, and give an indication of the sound volumes, and light up in Google’s traditional green, yellow, blue and red when activating any command.
It’s currently only available in one colour out of the box, which has an eggshell white upper plastic body, with the, almost universal, grey speaker mesh. Owners do have the option to purchase and swap out the mesh with different coloured variants to match your home’s theme more closely. Simply screw off the base and replace it with the newly purchased one and you’re good to go. There aren’t many options to purchase these yet in South Africa, although they are abundant on eBay at around $20 for the original base.
The Home is as simple to setup as it is to look at. From a first use point of view, the first thing you’ll need to do is plug in the device. This is followed by downloading the ‘Home’ app from the Play Store and pairing it with your smartphone. At this stage, you’re free to start using the Home without needing to complete any further steps if you don’t want, but some fine-tuning is suggested to get the most from the experience.
Once all is done, you can simply activate the voice-assistant with the default Google phrase: “Hello Google.” The flicker of the four LED lights is an indication that the Home is now listening and awaiting your command. Simply ask any question you may have, and the assistant attempts to answer your question, or search. The nifty part of the Home is that it is able to integrate with a few other apps on your smartphone, and, in turn, some other smart appliances in your home, say Nest, Philips Hue, and a few others. The device has its own speaker built-in, so you’re able to instruct it to play a video on your smartphone while acting as the source speaker, or an easier option of selecting your favourite music to play. Although it’s still early days here, the Home does provide some great promise for the central intelligence for the future smart home, and that’s an exciting prospect.
Voice-Assistance and AI
The voice-assistance on the device is very intuitive, but far from a polished product, by Google’s own admissions. I could easily fire off a number of questions at the assistant and was able to get sufficient information back. The easiest of tasks for the AI was to construct meaningful feedback for questions relating to the weather, my schedule, and a number of other easily located information it was able to gather from my other Google apps or the Internet. I was able to get an itinerary of my day, get the weather to the location I was going to during my trip, and even a few useful notes about the planned road trip beforehand, more so than the standard distance in kilometres.
What Google has also done well with the AI is predicting some of the more frequently asked questions and provide some witty retort, which always tends to amuse the listeners. There are a number of games the device is able to play as well, whether it be a single player, player vs AI, or multiple player games. There are also a number of jokes in Home’s arsenal, many of which don’t always make the cut in terms of a laugh, but still a valiant effort.
In the short time I had to play with the device, my favourite task to give the voice-assistant was to direct it to play music. I was able to choose from any track or album from my library, linked to Play Music, or simply search a track on the fly, sometimes even asking it to play something random, which was more or less based on my track history and library, and base it on my typical genre or style of music I like. If your smartphone is linked to a Bluetooth speaker, you could also choose whether you’d want to have the audio playing through the Home’s speaker or via the third-party Bluetooth speaker.
Short Comings and South African Support
At present, Google hasn’t officially launched the Home in South Africa and don’t have official support for the device in the country. This means that there’s a lot of potential apps and features you’re unable to integrate into assistant’s AI library, and even after a few attempts of trying to change regions and other shortcuts, I was unable to make any valuable changes here.
The limitation of the Home is that it isn’t quite full AI as yet. More often than not commands are based on searches and easily accessed information presented or queried in a linear fashion. This means that quite a few times the assistance wasn’t able to decipher my command or interpret what I thought to be a fairly straight forward question.
One other major drawback about the liner intelligence is that follow-up questions have to be directly related for it to understand the link, and is only to keep track of one antecedent query within its logic. As a programmer having spent some time studying AI, I do understand the complexities of developing numerous successions in requests, especially when you reach the tenth question. for example, and then reverting back to the original question or command. The memory implications are huge, with further complexities in the branches of these stored responses and possibilities that spawn from each…it’s just endless. Still, asking the Home to add one and one (with the answer of two), adding another one (answer three), and then the AI not being able to interpret a third addition to the original sum is just far too basic for my liking. And if you think follow-up mathematical questions are tough, good luck trying to ask a string of logical based questions or commands.
I would also like to see more humanoid response to questions and commands, as the female voice assistant often sounded robotic. The irony isn’t lost on me in that request, but given that the aim is to offer AI to ‘replace’ the current human PA, it’s only natural to aim for such integration. With movies such as Her and Ex-Machina, the level of expectation to deliver will always be high.
The Google Home was a joy to have some hands-on time with, however brief it may have been. The problem Google has on its hands with the device is choosing to focus heavily on its built-in AI, or more on supporting additional apps and smart hardware to make it more useful. The Home is slated as being a personal assistant, but with home integration at its fingertips, it’s a matter of preference what level of engagement you’d like to have on the device.
There’s no doubt a long road to go with the Home and future iterations thereof. Without the full support of its features in South Africa, I can’t make any conclusions as to whether the device is useful enough or not to warrant the small investment. At present, it provides basic assistant functionality to South African owners and buyers should not be upset about their purchase if they’ve already bought into Google’s vision.