Google Assistant

Google Assistant picks up a few new tricks

Posted by | Android, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, TC | No Comments

Google Assistant, the voice-driven AI that sits inside Google Home (plus Android phones, newer Nest cameras and a bunch of other devices) and awaits your “Hey, Google” commands, is already pretty clever. That doesn’t mean it can’t learn a few new tricks.

In a quick press briefing this week, Google told us a couple of new abilities Assistant will pick up in the coming weeks.

First, and perhaps most interestingly: routines can now be set to trigger the moment you dismiss an alarm on your phone. Routines are basically Google Assistant combo moves; you build them to trigger multiple actions at once. You can build a “Hey Google, I’m going to bed” command, for example, that turns off your smart lights, shuts down the TV and locks your smart locks. For a while now, you’ve been able to have routines triggered at specific times; now you can have them triggered by alarm dismissal.

The difference? If you snooze the alarm on your phone, the routine won’t go off just yet. So you can build a routine, for example, that turns on the lights and starts reading the news — but now it can go off when you’re really getting out of bed, roughly two snooze-buttons after when you probably should’ve gotten up. You’ll find this one hiding in Android’s Clock app.

Another feature, meanwhile, is getting an upgrade: broadcasts. If you’ve got multiple Google Home devices around your house, you can already “broadcast” to all of them to make house-wide announcements like “Dinner’s ready!” or “help I need toilet paper downstairs” (THE FUTURE!). Now you can broadcast messages back to your home while out and about via Google Assistant on your phone, and people inside the home can respond. You can say, “Hey Google, broadcast ‘Do we need milk?’” and anyone inside your house can say “Hey Google, reply ‘no but please get eggnog, come on, please, it’s basically December, you said we could get eggnog in December.’ ”

Broadcast replies will be sent back to your phone as a voice message and a transcription.

Google is also starting to introduce “character alarms” — which are, as the name implies, alarms voiced by popular characters. Right now they’re adding the heroes in a half shell from Nickelodeon’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and a bunch of LEGO animated series characters (alas, no LEGO Batman.) They’ll presumably expand this with more licenses if it proves popular.

And if you listen to podcasts or audiobooks on your Google Assistant devices, you can now adjust the playback speed by saying “Hey Google, play at 1.5x” or “1.8x” or whatever you want up to twice the speed. “Play faster” or “Play slower” also works if you’re not feeling specific.

Oh, and for good measure: Google Assistant can now silence all the phones in your house (or, at least, the Android phones tied to your Google account) with a quick “Hey Google, silence the phones” command.

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Facebook Portal needs more. At least it just added YouTube

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo Show, Apps, Facebook, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Home Hub, hardware, Media, Social, TC, YouTube | No Comments

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week.

Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Amazon Alexa inside. And now, Google’s YouTube is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, YouTube.com is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice.

The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Google Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access.

Read our comparison of the top smart display gadgets

YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube.

But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.”

The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when testing the Portal with my 72-year-old mother, not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.

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Comparing Google Home Hub vs Amazon Echo Show 2 vs Facebook Portal

Posted by | Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo Show, artificial intelligence, eCommerce, Facebook, Facebook Portal, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Hardware Event 2018, google home, hardware, JBL Link View, smart displays, Social, TC | No Comments

The war for the countertop has begun. Google, Amazon and Facebook all revealed their new smart displays this month. Each hopes to become the center of your Internet of Things-equipped home and a window to your loved ones. The $149 Google Home Hub is a cheap and privacy-safe smart home controller. The $229 Amazon Echo Show 2 gives Alexa a visual complement. And the $199 Facebook Portal and $349 Portal+ offer a Smart Lens that automatically zooms in and out to keep you in frame while you video chat.

For consumers, the biggest questions to consider are how much you care about privacy, whether you really video chat, which smart home ecosystem you’re building around and how much you want to spend.

  • For the privacy obsessed, Google’s Home Hub is the only one without a camera and it’s dirt cheap at $149.
  • For the privacy agnostic, Facebook’s Portal+ offers the best screen and video chat functionality.
  • For the chatty, Amazon Echo Show 2 can do message and video chat over Alexa, call phone numbers and is adding Skype.

If you want to go off-brand, there’s also the Lenovo Smart Display, with stylish hardware in a $249 10-inch 1080p version and a $199 8-inch 720p version. And for the audiophile, there’s the $199 JBL Link View. While those hit the market earlier than the platform-owned versions we’re reviewing here, they’re not likely to benefit from the constant iteration Google, Amazon and Facebook are working on for their tabletop screens.

Here’s a comparison of the top smart displays, including their hardware specs, unique software, killer features and pros and cons:

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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Here are all the details on the new Pixel 3, Pixel Slate, Pixel Stand, and Home Hub

Posted by | Android, Apple, Assistant, computing, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Google Hardware Event 2018, google nexus, google store, machine learning, mobile phones, new york city, PIXEL, pixel 3, Samsung, smartphones, Speaker, tablet computers, TC, touch pad | No Comments

At a special event in New York City, Google announced some of its latest, flagship hardware devices. During the hour-long press conference Google executives and product managers took the wraps off the company’s latest products and explained their features. Chief among the lot is the Pixel 3, Google’s latest flagship Android device. Like the Pixel 2 before it, the Pixel 3’s main feature is its stellar camera but there’s a lot more magic packed inside the svelte frame.

Pixel 3

Contrary to some earlier renders, the third version of Google’s Android flagship (spotted by 9 to 5 Google) does boast a sizable notch up top, in keeping with earlier images of the larger XL. Makes sense, after all, Google went out of its way to boast about notch functionality when it introduced Pie, the latest version of its mobile OS.

The device is available for preorder today and will start shipping October 18, starting at $799. The larger XL starts at $899, still putting the product at less than the latest flagships from Apple and Samsung.

Pixel Slate

The device looks pretty much exactly like the leaks lead us to believe — it’s a premium slate with a keyboard cover that doubles as a stand. It also features a touch pad, which gives it the edge over products like Samsung’s most recent Galaxy Tab. There’s also a matching Google Pen, which appears to more or less be the same product announced around the Pixel Book, albeit with a darker paint job to match the new product.

The product starts at $599, plus $199 for the keyboard and $99 for the new dark Pen. All three are shipping at some point later this year.

Home Hub

The device looks like an Android tablet mounted on top of a speaker — which ought to address the backward firing sound, which is one of the largest design flaws of the recently introduced Echo Show 2. The speaker fabric comes in a number of different colors, in keeping with the rest of the Pixel/Home products, including the new Aqua.

When not in use, the product doubles as a smart picture frame, using albums from Google Photos. A new Live Albums, which auto updates, based on the people you choose. So you can, say, select your significant others and it will create a gallery based on that person. Sweet and also potentially creepy. Machine learning, meanwhile, will automatically filter out all of the lousy shots.

The Home Hub is up for pre-order today for a very reasonable $149. In fact, the device actually seems like a bit of a loss leader for the company in an attempt to hook people into the Google Assistant ecosystem. It will start shipping October 22.

Pixel Stand

The Pixel Stand is basically a sleek little round dock for your phone. While it can obviously charge your phone, what’s maybe more interesting is that when you put your phone into the cradle, it looks like it’ll start a new notifications view that’s not unlike what you’d see on a smart display. It costs $79.

more Google Event 2018 coverage

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The Google Assistant gets more visual

Posted by | Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Google, Google Assistant, google home, Mobile, smart home devices, TC | No Comments

Google today is launching a major visual redesign of its Assistant experience on phones. While the original vision of the Assistant focused mostly on voice, half of all interactions with the Assistant actually include touch. So with this redesign, Google acknowledges that and brings more and larger visuals to the Assistant experience.

If you’ve used one of the recent crop of Assistant-enabled smart displays, then some of what’s new here may look familiar. You now get controls and sliders to manage your smart home devices, for example. Those include sliders to dim your lights and buttons to turn them on or off. There also are controls for managing the volume of your speakers. Update: Google tells me that update will roll out over the course of the next few weeks, with the iOS release depending on Apple’s app store review process.Even in cases where the Assistant already offered visual feedback — say when you ask for the weather — the team has now also redesigned those results and brought them more in line with what users are already seeing on smart displays from the likes of Lenovo and LG. On the phone, though, that experience still feels a bit more pared down than on those larger displays.

With this redesign, which is going live on both Android and in the iOS app today, Google is also bringing a little bit more of the much-missed Google Now experience back to the phone. While you could already bring up a list of upcoming appointments, commute info, recent orders and other information about your day from the Assistant, that feature was hidden behind a rather odd icon that many users surely ignored. Now, after you’ve long-pressed the home button on your Android phone, you can swipe up to get that same experience. I’m not sure that’s more discoverable than previously, but Google is saving you a tap.

In addition to the visual redesign of the Assistant, Google also today announced a number of new features for developers. Unsurprisingly, one part of this announcement focuses on allowing developers to build their own visual Assistant experiences. Google calls these “rich responses” and provides developers with a set of pre-made visual components that they can easily use to extend their Assistant actions. And because nothing is complete with GIFs, they can now use GIFs in their Assistant apps, too.

But in addition to these new options for creating more visual experiences, Google is also making it a bit easier for developers to take their users money.

While they could already sell physical goods through their Assistant actions, starting today, they’ll also be able to sell digital goods. Those can be one-time purchases for a new level in a game or recurring subscriptions. Headspace, which has long offered a very basic Assistant experience, now lets you sign up for subscriptions right from the Assistant on your phone, for example.

Selling digital goods directly in the Assistant is one thing, but that sale has to sync across different applications, too, so Google today is also launching a new sign-in service for the Assistant that allows developers to log in and link their accounts.

“In the past, account linking could be a frustrating experience for your users; having to manually type a username and password — or worse, create a new account — breaks the natural conversational flow,” the company explains. “With Google Sign-In, users can now create a new account with just a tap or confirmation through their voice. Most users can even link to their existing accounts with your service using their verified email address.”

Starbucks has already integrated this feature into its Assistant experience to give users access to their rewards account. Adding the new Sign-In for the Assistant has almost doubled its conversion rate.

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JBL’s smart display combines Google smarts with good sound

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, JBL, smart speaker, Speaker, TC | No Comments

If you’re looking for a smart display that’s powered by the Google Assistant, you now have two choices: the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View. Lenovo was first out of the gate with its surprisingly stylish gadget, but it also left room for improvement. JBL, given its heritage as an audio company, is putting the emphasis on sound quality, with stereo speakers and a surprising amount of bass.

In terms of the overall design, the Link View isn’t going to win any prizes, but its pill shape definitely isn’t ugly either. JBL makes the Link View in any color you like, as long as that’s black. It’ll likely fit in with your home decor, though.

The Link View has an 8-inch high-definition touchscreen that is more than crisp enough for the maps, photos and YouTube videos you’ll play on it. In using it for the last two weeks, the screen turned out to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but you’d expect that given that I put it on the kitchen counter and regularly used it to entertain myself while waiting for the water to boil.

At the end of the day, you’re not going to spend $250 on a nice speaker with a built-in tablet. What matters most here is whether the visual side of the Google Assistant works for you. I find that it adds an extra dimension to the audio responses, no matter whether that’s weather reports, a map of my daily commute (which can change depending on traffic) or a video news report. Google’s interface for these devices is simple and clear, with large buttons and clearly presented information. And maybe that’s no surprise. These smart speakers are the ideal surface for its Material Design language, after all.

As a demo, Google likes to talk about how these gadgets can help you while cooking, with step-by-step recipes and videos. I find that this is a nice demo indeed, and thought that it would help me get a bit more creative with trying new recipes. In reality, though, I never have the ingredients I need to cook what Google suggests. If you are a better meal planner than I am, your mileage will likely vary.

What I find surprisingly useful is the display’s integration of Google Duo. I’m aware that the Allo/Duo combo is a bit of a flop, but the display does make you want to use Duo because you can easily have a video chat while just doing your thing in the kitchen. If you set up multiple users, the display can even receive calls for all of them. And don’t worry, there is a physical slider you can use to shut down the camera whenever you want.

The Link View also made me appreciate Google’s Assistant routines more (and my colleague Lucas Matney found the same when he tried out the Lenovo Smart Display). And it’s just a bit easier to look at the weather graphics instead of having the Assistant rattle off the temperature for the next couple of days.

Maybe the biggest letdown, though (and this isn’t JBL’s, fault but a feature Google needs to enable) is that you can’t add a smart display to your Google Assistant groups. That means you can’t use it as part of your all-house Google Home audio system, for example. It’s an odd omission for sure, given the Link View’s focus on sound, but my understanding is that the same holds true for the Lenovo Smart Display. If this is a deal breaker for you, then I’d hold off on buying a Google Assistant smart display for the time being.

You can, however, use the display as a Chromecast receiver to play music from your phone or watch videos. While you are not using it, the display can show the current time or simply go to blank.

Another thing that doesn’t work on smart displays yet is Google’s continued “conversation feature,” which lets you add a second command without having to say “OK, Google” again. For now, the smart displays only work in English, too.

When I first heard about these smart displays, I wasn’t sure if they were going to be useful. Turns out, they are. I do live in the Google Assistant ecosystem, though, and I’ve got a few Google Homes set up around my house. If you’re looking to expand your Assistant setup, then the Link View is a nice addition — and if you’re just getting started (or only need one Assistant-enabled speaker/display), then opting for a smart display over a smart speaker may just be the way to go, assuming you can stomach the extra cost.

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The Google Assistant is now bilingual 

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, google home, google search, hardware, Roomba, smart speaker | No Comments

The Google Assistant just got more useful for multilingual families. Starting today, you’ll be able to set up two languages in the Google Home app and the Assistant on your phone and Google Home will then happily react to your commands in both English and Spanish, for example.

Today’s announcement doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, given that Google announced at its I/O developer conference earlier this year that it was working on this feature. It’s nice to see that this year, Google is rolling out its I/O announcements well before next year’s event. That hasn’t always been the case in the past.

Currently, the Assistant is only bilingual and it still has a few languages to learn. But for the time being, you’ll be able to set up any language pair that includes English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. More pairs are coming in the future and Google also says it is working on trilingual support, too.

Google tells me this feature will work with all Assistant surfaces that support the languages you have selected. That’s basically all phones and smart speakers with the Assistant, but not the new smart displays, as they only support English right now.

While this may sound like an easy feature to implement, Google notes this was a multi-year effort. To build a system like this, you have to be able to identify multiple languages, understand them and then make sure you present the right experience to the user. And you have to do all of this within a few seconds.

Google says its language identification model (LangID) can now distinguish between 2,000 language pairs. With that in place, the company’s researchers then had to build a system that could turn spoken queries into actionable results in all supported languages. “When the user stops speaking, the model has not only determined what language was being spoken, but also what was said,” Google’s VP Johan Schalkwyk and Google Speech engineer Lopez Moreno write in today’s announcement. “Of course, this process requires a sophisticated architecture that comes with an increased processing cost and the possibility of introducing unnecessary latency.”

If you are in Germany, France or the U.K., you’ll now also be able to use the bilingual assistant on a Google Home Max. That high-end version of the Google Home family is going on sale in those countries today.

In addition, Google also today announced that a number of new devices will soon support the Assistant, including the tado° thermostats, a number of new security and smart home hubs (though not, of course, Amazon’s own Ring Alarm), smart bulbs and appliances, including the iRobot Roomba 980, 896 and 676 vacuums. Who wants to have to push a button on a vacuum, after all.

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Google’s Wear OS gets a new look

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, Mobile, operating system, smartphone, smartphones, smartwatches, Software, TC, wear os | No Comments

Wear OS, Google’s smartwatch operating system that was once called Android Wear, is getting a new look today. Google says the overall idea here is to give you quicker access to information and more proactive help. In line with the Google Fit redesign, Wear OS now also provides you with the same kind of health coaching as the Android app.

In practice, this means you can now swipe through multiple notifications at once, for example. Previously, you had to go from one notifications card to the next, which sound minor but was indeed a bit of a hassle. Like before, you bring up the new notifications feed by swiping up. If you want to reply or take any other action, you tap the notification to bring up those options.

Wear OS is also getting a bit of a Google Now replacement. Simply swipe right and the Google Assistant will bring up the weather, your flight status, hotel notifications or other imminent events. Like in most other Assistant-driven interfaces, Google will also use this area to help you discover other Assistant features like setting timers (though I think everybody knows how to use the Assistant to set a time given that I’m sure that’s 90% of Assistant usage right there).

As for Google Fit, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Wear OS is adapting the same circle design with Hear Points and Move Minutes as the Android app. On a round Wear OS watch, that design actually looks quite well.

While this obviously isn’t a major break from previous versions, we’re definitely talking about quality-of-life improvements here that do make using Wear OS just that little bit easier.

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JBL’s $250 Google Assistant smart display is now available for pre-order

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, chromecast, computing, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, hardware, JBL, lenovo, LG, TC | No Comments

It’s been a week since Lenovo’s Google Assistant-powered smart display went on sale. Slowly but surely, its competitors are launching their versions, too. Today, JBL announced that its $249.95 JBL Link View is now available for pre-order, with an expected ship date of September 3, 2018.

JBL went for a slightly different design than Lenovo (and the upcoming LG WK9), but in terms of functionality, these devices are pretty much the same. The Link View features an 8-inch HD screen; unlike Lenovo’s Smart Display, JBL is not making a larger 10-inch version. It’s got two 10W speakers and the usual support for Bluetooth, as well as Google’s Chromecast protocol.

JBL says the unit is splash proof (IPX4), so you can safely use it to watch YouTube recipe videos in your kitchen. It also offers a 5MP front-facing camera for your video chats and a privacy switch that lets you shut off the camera and microphone.

JBL, Lenovo and LG all announced their Google Assistant smart displays at CES earlier this. Lenovo was the first to actually ship a product, and both the hardware as well as Google’s software received a positive reception. There’s no word on when LG’s WK9 will hit the market.

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Google Assistant can now do things automatically at a scheduled time

Posted by | Gadgets, Google Assistant, TC | No Comments

Back at Google I/O, Google announced two new features for Google Assistant: custom routines and schedules — both focusing on automating things you do regularly, but in different ways.

The first lets you trigger multiple commands with a single custom phrase — like saying “Hey Google, I’m awake” to unsilence your phone, turn on the lights and read the news. Schedules, meanwhile, could trigger a series of commands at a specific time on specific days, without you needing to say a thing.

While custom routines launched almost immediately after I/O, scheduling has been curiously absent. It’s starting to roll out today.

As first noticed by DroidLife, it looks like scheduling has started rolling out to users by way of the Google Home app.

To make a schedule:

  • Open the Google Home app
  • Go to Settings>Routines
  • Create a new routine with the + button
  • Scroll to the “Set a time and day” option to schedule things ahead of time

If you don’t see the “time and day” option yet, check back in a day or two. Google is rolling it out over the next few days (generally done in case there’s some bug it missed), so it might pop up without much fanfare.

Want your bedroom lights to turn on every morning at 7 am on workdays? You can do that. Want that song from the Six Flags commercials to play every day at noon to get you over the hump and/or drive your roommates up a wall? Sure! Want to double-check the door lock, dim the downstairs lights and make sure your entertainment center is off at 2 am? If you’ve got all the smart home hardware required, it should be able to handle it.

While a lot of things you might use Google Assistant for can already be scheduled through their respective third-party apps (most smart lights, for example, have apps with built-in scheduling options), this moves to bring everything under one roof while letting you fire off more complicated sequences all at once. And if something breaks? You’ll know where to look.

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