I've been sold on voice-controlled digital assistants since I was a little kid.
How could I not be? I grew up with "Back to the Future 2" on VHS and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in primetime.
More to the point, how could anyone not be? The concept of handling casual tasks by voice rather than touch is incredibly appealing. It's no surprise that Amazon's Echo device, with its voice controlled assistant named "Alexa," is such a hit. Being able to play music, control lighting, and order an Uber — all through voice, quickly — is a huge deal.
It's the actual promise of home automation: saving you the time, in aggregate, of not doing millions of menial tasks.
Even with that promise, I hesitated with the Echo.
It's expensive, at $179, and Amazon has a way of funneling all of its products into a means of increasing revenue on Amazon.com. It's a question of intent — as a consumer, I don't trust that Amazon's creating a product to create a great product, and I don't trust that Amazon will continue to support it in the long-run. And that pushes me off of dropping nearly $200 on a total luxury item.
But when Google announced the price and release date for Google Home on Tuesday, I was intrigued once again in digital assistants. $129? And it uses Google's excellent, proven voice recognition software?
Simply put: Google Home is a speaker with two microphones mounted on top, which it uses for hearing your commands. Say, "Okay, Google: Play The Bee Gees." Just like that, you're ha, ha ha, ha, stayin' aliiiiiive.
But here's what really sold me: a simple, obvious feature called "My Day." It's a daily briefing. Bear with me here.
"We designed a feature called 'My Day,' that (with your permission) summarizes important topics and activities for you in a really simple way. It's a great thing to try with the morning coffee," Rishi Chandra, a senior product manager at Google explained on-stage Tuesday.
The demo is short. Chandra says, "Okay, Google: Good morning!"
Google Home responds accordingly with the following:
"Good Morning, Rishi! It is 7:32 AM. The weather in San Francisco currently is 59 degrees and cloudy, with a high of 65 degrees. Your commute to work is currently 59 minutes with moderate traffic if you take US 101 South. Today at 5PM you have Bollywood hip-hop dance class. By the way, remember to cook dinner tonight for the kids. Have a good one!"
Really simple! Really obvious! So useful!
This is the base level stuff I've wanted from personal AI assistants since I was 10. Alexa doesn't do it. Siri doesn't do it. Cortana doesn't do it.
It's what Google already basically does for me on my phone (I have a Nexus 5X), but in a much, much easier way: by voice, no phone needed!
Google Home does all the other personal AI assistant stuff, of course:
- It sets calendar events, timers, and dinner reservations.
- It plays your music (from a variety of services) out of its multi-directional speaker setup.
- It employs Google/Google Maps to answer questions and give you directions.
- It works with various connected home devices, like Phillips Hue light bulbs and Nest thermostats.
And all of that is fantastic, but the fact that Google realizes how important it is for its assistant to actually be an assistant — unlike Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Microsoft's Cortana — is really meaningful. And the fact that Google already nails this so, so well with Google Now gives me faith that this ethos will carry over to Google Home.
Google's also talking big game about the "Google Assistant" AI software built into Google Home (as well as Google's new phone, the Pixel). It's a seeming evolution of the Google Now concept, which is the best part of owning an Android phone.
Since Google services — Gmail, Maps, Calendar, etc. — are so tightly integrated in Android, Google Now takes pieces from each and turns it into incredibly useful, predictive information. For instance, I take the same train line to work pretty much every time, around the same time in the morning. Google Now automatically tells me about delays and closures. It knows if the gates have changed on my upcoming flight before I do, and it tells me.
With Google Assistant, I expect an extension of that already useful functionality. It takes the amazing, predictive stuff that Google Now already does, and it turns that into a conversation.
Amazon's Echo, for all its functionality, doesn't take that same approach. It's an assistant in that it can do things for you — play music, set timers, etc. — but it's not predictive, it's reactive. That's a crucial difference, and it's why I pre-ordered a Google Home on Tuesday.