Ill communication

Fri Aug 18, 2017

Google Home is Canada’s first official smart speaker, so I couldn’t resist pre-ordering one when it landed in the True North. Being an early adopter is definitely out of character for me - I think this is the first product I’ve ever pre-ordered. Anyway, I’ve been using it for a few months now. Here are my thoughts so far.

The main draw of the Google Home is the ability to converse with the Google Assistant. Ambient computing, as it is called by some, is a cool sci-fi concept and, along with the flip phone and the tablet, is another Star Trek crossover from fantasy into reality. A lots of geeks out there love the idea of leaning back in their captain’s chair with a cup of Earl Grey and barking out “computer!” to chat with an AI.

The problem is, in real life, you aren’t running a starship. And to run your household seamlessly through voice control, the Internet of Things (IoT) needs to catch up to the future. Right now it is a tangled mess of incompatible competing platforms. A case in point - Siri doesn’t seem to have a problem controlling my Philips Hue smart bulbs, but Google does. The Google Assistant cheerily assures me the lights are off, but they stubbornly stay on, proving that even an artificial intelligence can lie.

Although the idea of chatting with an AI sounds fun, in reality it is not really a thing you do for actual enjoyment. The Google Assistant is a poor conversationalist. Prefacing every question with “Okay Google” is awkward and there is never a back and forth tête-à-tête.

And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like talking much, especially when you’ve just woken up, silence is almost certainly preferable. Sadly, croaking out “Hey Google, how’s my day looking” first thing in the morning feels like too much of an effort.

Also, when you want to google something, such as a recipe for breaded fish, it requires reading a screen most of the time - unless you’re looking for trivial information. When I’m wondering if it is going to rain today while eating breakfast, the assistant delivers admirably.

The assistant has a few party tricks up her sleeve, such as making animal sounds, telling jokes, and playing trivia games. The novelty of this forced frivolity wears off after a day or two, but telling a joke is a great go-to demo for when guests come over.

There is one area, however, where the Google Home shines - music.

The one use case that makes the Google Home totally worth it is when you are washing dishes. No longer do you have to painstakingly assemble the perfect dish-washing soundtrack prior to soaping up. And halfway through the sudsy grind, you can change the choice of music hands-free. Google Home is the ultimate dish-washing companion.

It is also very easy for young children to choose their own music without having to navigate through a text-based UI or ask their parents to constantly play the Moana soundtrack. The downside is that you have to constantly listen to the Moana soundtrack.

With music being such a natural fit for a smart speaker, it seems to me that Apple may be onto something with their forthcoming Homepod - an expensive, but high-quality speaker focused solely on the enjoyment of music. We’ll see - it’s not coming out for a while.

The sound quality of the Google Home isn’t bad, but nobody is going to mistake it for a high-end audio system. Google Home is casual and non-committal, but by not taking itself seriously, perhaps has missed an opportunity to win over bleeding-edge audiophiles who aren’t ashamed to retire their vinyl collection and embrace the minimalist future after moving into a one-bedroom apartment in the city.

The good news is that Google Home will only get better over time. Indeed, support for multiple users, hands-free calling, and bluetooth are rolling out in Canada as I write this. Bluetooth pairing will be particularly useful because I listen to podcasts on my iPhone. And it is way too painful to listen to a podcast on two different platforms when they don’t synchronize where you last left off.

Despite my ambivalence, I don’t regret jumping somewhat prematurely into the world of ambient computing. After all, smart speakers demand nothing from you and they don’t barrage you with notifications or vie for your attention. They just sit there - patiently listening (sometimes for days on end) for somebody to talk to them.

In fact, I think “ambient computing” is too grand a term for the current iteration of smart speakers. Smart speakers at their most useful simply provide hands-free music playback. I don’t think these devices necessarily herald a new UI paradigm.

The main disadvantage of an invisible UI paradigm is that the user can’t perform complex tasks without being presented with action-oriented objects, such as labelled buttons. Consulting a spreadsheet of Google Assistant commands quickly takes the momentum out of any possible workflow.

I have no doubt that smart assistants will continue to excel as dish-washing companions, a delightfully useful (but niche) area of expertise. Whether they will one day migrate onto starships is debatable.

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