Will Google Home (and Assistant) be more than just a thing you talk at?
We’re in the very early stages of Google Assistant and Google Home. Just hours, really, after they both were announced at the annual Google I/O developer conference, held this week at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, next door to Google’s campus.
Assistant is the next major iteration of Google’s search platform, going beyond just returning results, going to the next level above contextual computing (which itself was a tentpole of a previous I/O). Home is the appliance on which Google will further integrate itself into — well, into your home. It’s a very Google-looking product. You can see similarities in the industrial design that you also see in Google’s cute little self-driving cars, believe it or not. It’s a speaker and a wireless connected hub thing, but certainly a non-threatening one. (It’s also surprisingly small.)
Comparisons to Amazon’s Echo speaker are, of course, apt. Echo (or Alexa, if you prefer) is a connected product that’s decently smart and can do things and answer questions — and it keeps getting smarter all the time. And it’s got a huge head start over Google Home, having reportedly sold 3 million units in the year and a half or so that it’s been available.
Echo also has something that at least so far in the limited demos that we’ve seen, Google’s Assistant and Home lack — personality.
Talking to “Alexa” is still a little cheesy. I know there’s not a woman trapped inside that 9-inch cylinder that looks like it could have been a prop in Star Trek IV. But I also know that people generally enjoy interacting with other people, and not just with things. It’s a big part of what makes Apple’s Siri so successful. And it’s what’s behind movies like Her. We want to talk to someone. Google’s Search product has nearly always produced superior results. And while it’s done so in a pleasant voice, it’s always been done with a sense of neutrality. “OK, Google.” Or “Hello, Moto.” I’m talking to things, not people.
We can certainly rationalize that Siri isn’t actually a person. (Though you know there’s someone sitting alone in a dark room somewhere who long since lost that distinction.) We know Alexa is just a speaker. But we also allow ourselves to partake in just a little bit of make-believe, something made all the easier when we can do things like set our own wake commands. We “ask Siri” and “ask Alexa.” We give them female pronouns. Our kids (my kids, at least, and that’s how I judge all other offspring) damn near consider them little electronic friends.
That’s not to say Google Home and Assistant won’t be compelling or friendly or simply fun to use. They’ll certainly be conversational. The question for me is just how personable will they be. Will I be talking to some_one_, or at some_thing_? And on a less-fun level, how well will they handle working with multiple people with multiple Google accounts? And what of all the technological hurdles for this sort of thing?
Those latter bits are more easily addressed. It’s easier to find a tool to use to get things done than it is to invite someone new into your home.