A home that listens to you

Google Home is a stand-alone device, was launched in the US in November and costs $129 (around Rs8,790)


Google Home can’t place calls, set reminders, send emails or messages.
Google Home can’t place calls, set reminders, send emails or messages.

Hey, Google, set an alarm for 8.30am tomorrow,” I said as I got into bed on a cold winter night. And the voice replied: “Sure thing. Alarm set for 8.30 tomorrow morning.”

I’m not a morning person, and often set an alarm on my iPhone, or ask Siri to do it for me. Of late, I’ve been using my new device called Google Home, a voice-controlled speaker with an integrated virtual assistant, that my son got for me. He thought it would be a perfect gift for a geek dad who has seen too many sci-fi movies.

As I woke up to the sound of a soft alarm, I said: “Hey, Google. Good morning.” “Good morning, Shekhar,” it said. “The time is 8.40am. The weather in New Delhi currently is 10 degrees Celsius with a high of 17 degrees. Have a good one. And here’s the news from BBC …”

There wasn’t much on US politics and I thought an American radio station such as PBS would have more. “Hey, Google. What’s the news on PBS?” I asked. “Here’s the latest news from PBS News Hour…”

That’s when my wife said, “Ask her (the voice on the speaker is female) if she knows how to clean stains on brass.” It certainly did: “Use lemon and detergent,” and then read out the steps. If it doesn’t know the answer, it says: “Sorry, I don’t know how to help with that yet. But I’m always learning.”

Google Home is a stand-alone device—a speaker with microphones built in—that connects to your home Wi-Fi. It was launched in the US in November and costs $129 (around Rs8,790). It is yet to be launched outside the US.

It isn’t the first personal assistant of its kind: Amazon launched Echo, popularly known by its female voice assistant Alexa, in 2014 (also not officially released in India yet). According to reports, Amazon has sold five million Echos since its launch.

The female voice in Google Home has no name. It responds to “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google”. I would have liked to change the name but the device said I cannot. “Way too much paperwork.”

Since I haven’t used Echo, I can’t say which personal assistant is better. I did, however, ask my Google Home if it is smarter than Alexa, and the reply was a bit diplomatic: “I like Alexa’s blue light. Her voice is nice too.” I asked again, and it said: “I just try to be the best me as I can be.” Nice.

In the three weeks since we have had the device, it’s been a lot of fun using it. Ask how many millilitres in one fluid ounce, and you get a prompt reply: “29.574.” That’s 30ml.

When you download the Google Home app (free on Android and iOS), it says “Google Home isn’t designed for use in your country”, and some of its features and services are US-centric, including its default music settings. But it plays music on TuneIn radio, a free service, and responded beautifully when I said “play some jazz on WBGO”. You can also watch Netflix on your TV if you have connected a Google Chromecast (Rs3,399; Snapdeal.com) streaming device to it.

Since it taps into Google’s search engine, its knowledge base is formidable: Ask what sound a hummingbird makes, and you hear the birdsong. Which bird has the loudest call? “The three-wattled bellbird.” What’s the average age of an octopus? “Three-five years.” It can also get you an Uber, though I haven’t tried it thus far.

And you can also ask, “Are there any pizza places near me?”

“I found a few places within 2.1km.” And it gave me the names and addresses of Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Slice of Italy.

“Hey, Google. Give me the phone number of Slice of Italy.” And it did. But if you ask it to call the restaurant, it tells you it can’t do that yet.

That’s a big limitation of Google Home: It can’t place calls, set reminders, send emails or messages. But I guess this is just the beginning and these devices will become more sophisticated. I asked Google Home if it’s a work in progress, and it replied, “Always.”

One aspect that worries me is privacy: Is it listening to my conversations even when it’s in sleep mode? I’ve seen too many sci-fi movies and I’m suspicious. There was a crime case in Arkansas last month where the local police asked Amazon to hand over data from an Echo device that was in a room where a murder had taken place. So far Amazon has refused to comply. My Google Home says it listens only when I say “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google”. I must confess I have grown to like Google Home, so I will just take her word for it.

Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.

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