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Peter Vogel

Google makes itself at Home

Voices Jan. 12, 2018

Google Home and other digital assistants are proving to be popular, and effective, home accessories. Credit: www.nextdayblinds.com

In 2017, a new category of home electronics gained traction – the smart microphone-speaker combination epitomized by the likes of the Google Home and the Amazon Echo devices.

Typically these devices are small, cylindrical units that can be placed unobtrusively in homes. At the heart of these devices is a digital assistant. Some of these assistants have fancy names such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana. In typical Google fashion, its assistant is simply named Google Assistant. However, it isn’t addressed as such.

Although I purchased a Google Home the day it became available back in the summer, I didn’t actually open the package until late November.

Let’s just say I was hooked right away.

Google Home is a fine piece of hardware. And it looks pretty stylish as well. In fact the packaging, design, and ease of installation is very reminiscent of Apple hardware.

It is a snap to install (you will need a mobile device or a Chromebook that can handle Android apps). All you need is a power source and a Wi-Fi network.

I installed our unit via the Chromebook. Basically all I had to do was provide the password for the home Wi-Fi service (I connected via the 2.4 GHz feed).

From that moment, the Home device is ready to respond to the "OK Google" or "Hey Google" watch-word commands.

Here are the initial commands I tried the moment the unit was set up in my home.

– Play Christmas music

– What is the weather tomorrow in Vancouver?

– What is the value of Pi?

– Set volume 75%

– What is the travel time to Vancouver?

– What is the value of 1 bitcoin in US dollars?

– What is the share price of AAPL?

– Play a song by Michael Buble

– BBC News

– Give me a recipe for banana loaf

– Phone nnn nnn nnnn

– Play radio station CKNW

– Stop

You get the idea. This is the basic functionality, out of the box. If you have other Internet-connected devices (e.g. lights, thermostat) then Google Home can control those as well, but that’s a discussion for another day. And, yes, you can phone anywhere through Google Home.

It is apparent that the programmers who worked on Google Home have a sense of humour and that they left a trove of Easter Eggs for users to discover. “Hey Google, sing a song.”

The music component of Google Home gets even better when you cast it to the TV. “Hey Google, play Michael Buble on Chromecast 1” will automatically turn on the TV into which Chromecast 1 has been plugged via an HDMI port.

If you have a subscription to Google Play Music or to Spotify there is additional functionality that lets people play specific user-created playlists. You can even create playlists entirely from voice commands.

I have to say that Google Home has terrific sound. And the microphone input is simply amazing, even from many metres or even a room or two away.

In my case I placed the Google Home device immediately adjacent to the TV, between the speakers we typically use for that TV. Google Home’s speakers are good enough that for the most part they are indistinguishable from those of the bigger system. When casting to the TV, Google Home’s audio output switches to that in use by the TV.

Devices such as Google Home are not without their detractors. Although the companies behind the units say that they only listen to instructions following the trigger or watch words, there was a case where a journalist was able to show that a smaller version of Google Home, the Google Mini, was recording everything being said in the vicinity of the unit.

This problem was subsequently addressed but the companies aren’t completely forthcoming about what else they may do with the data collected in regular operation of these digital assistants.

Other detractors say that the devices do little more than you can already accomplish with a smartphone’s digital assistant. To some extent that is true, but it’s the built-in speakers and ultra-responsive microphones that make them compelling.

In our house we always leave a radio playing loudly when we leave. Now we have Google Home handle that: “Ok Google, play radio station News 1130 and set volume to 80 per cent”.

Google Home is clearly popular in Canada. Introduced at a price of $179 (that included a Chromecast device), the price was lowered around the Black Friday time to $99 and since then has been more often than not sold out . Same story with the lower-priced Mini units.

Home digital assistants are here to stay, at least judging by the current demand here in Canada. And as other Wi-Fi enabled devices such as lights and thermostats come down in price, they will only increase the demand for units such as Google Home.

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