“Hey Google, can you give me a gift idea for Mother’s Day?” The Google Home device on the coffee table lights up, and responds in a female voice, “You could make her something tasty to eat, do you want a recipe?” I don’t really feel like cooking, so I ask, “Hey Google, what restaurants nearby are open Mother’s Day for lunch?” Almost immediately, the starburst on top of the Google Home lights up and the Google Assistant responds, “The Seafood Center is open May 14th from 10 AM to 6 PM. It is 4 miles away.” That sounds promising. “Hey Google, what’s their phone number?” A female voice cheerfully reads the number out, then repeats it again when asked, after I locate a bold pen and some paper to jot it down on.
What is Google Home?
Google Home is the most recent of the stand-alone devices that offer users an electronic digital assistant, connected to the internet, to help with information gathering tasks. Think of a smart, voice activated speaker that connects to the internet via WIFI. It is similar in many ways to the Amazon Echo product with the Alexa digital assistant that preceded it by at least a year. Google Home, which debuted in November 2016, is a device that may be purchased in a variety of color combinations and looks like a beefier, two-tone, Renuzit air freshener, 51/2 inches tall and about 3 ½ inches wide. There is a detachable electrical cord (not a standard USB cord) to plug into an AC outlet, and one recessed button on the same side where the electrical cord connects, which toggles the microphone on or off. The top of the Google Home is sensitive to the touch, so touching the top will pause or resume a response from the Google Assistant, and circling the top with a finger will increase or decrease the volume, depending on the direction—clockwise to increase, counter clockwise to decrease. A colorful light array will appear at the top when Google Home is starting up or processing a command.
How Does It Work?
Google Home connects to the wireless internet (WIFI) during setup, and provides access to a wide variety of information and entertainment resources available on the internet using simple voice commands. One of the great features of Google Home and the Amazon Echo, for that matter, is that after the initial setup, users may get information or access services on the internet without using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. Prior to the digital assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Apple’s Siri, users really had to know some of the basics of using a computer or tablet, to get access to this storehouse of information. Now, devices like Google Home make this more accessible to everyone able to vocalize a command and hear the response, albeit in a somewhat limited way.
The initial setup of the Google Home requires that a tablet or smartphone, running the free Google Home App be used to identify the Google account to be used on the device, put in the WIFI connection information, and select some of the basic features to be enabled. For example, asking the Google Assistant for the news will present news updates from preselected sources prior to customization. These sources can be later personalized during or after the setup, by adding sources like BBC or CNN updates from the available list of news options.
One of the advantages of the Google Home for users new to technology in general, is that much of the selection or customization may be done intuitively using a conversational voice command. With the Amazon Echo, on the other hand, many of these personalizations are added as “skills;” meaning that they must be done on a tablet or smartphone, connected to the Alexa App. For example, to have the Echo entertain with jokes, a skill needs to be added for jokes and the command given for that specific skill. The Google Home, when asked, just shares a joke.
Is It All Just Fun and Games?
The Google Assistant will perform many practical tasks, like telling the time, weather forecasts for any place you ask, setting a timer or an alarm, compiling and adding to a shopping list, calculating numbers like a talking calculator, reading and adding appointments to calendar, searching the internet for a local business phone number, and so much more.
In addition, because of the internet access Google Home can provide a great deal of streaming content, for entertainment, education, or just a convenient means of access. You might think of the Google Home as a voice-activated radio tuner that uses the internet as an alternative to radio waves. For example, one of my favorite podcasts for technology updates, is Cool Blind Tech. Each episode is called a podcast and can be downloaded or streamed on the internet. “Hey Google, play the Cool Blind Tech podcast,” starts the most recently produced podcast. The same happens with several other popular podcasts found on NPR Radio. My local PBS radio station played live when the command, “Hey Google, play the local PBS radio station,” is given. I notice, however, that the selection of podcasts, specifically related to vision loss, like AppleVis, Eyes on Success, and Blind Abilities is more limited than what is available using the Amazon Echo.
Finding Practical Information
The Google Home doesn’t yet have the flexibility of a computer running a screen reader, meaning that you will not be able to conduct the in-depth sort of information gathering you might do with a computer, researching multiple websites. However, when asked, “Hey Google, when did Mother’s Day start?” The Google Assistant provided a great summary from the website Wikipedia (a digital general purpose internet encyclopedia) reporting that President Woodrow Wilson declared in 1914 that the second Sunday of each month would be designated the holiday of Mother’s Day, and signed it into law. Likewise, when asked for the history of Mother’s Day, the Google Assistant cited a website called History.com, and reported that celebrations and festivals honoring the goddesses of motherhood dated to the earliest Greek and Roman times, and in more recent Christian history, may have come from “Mothering Sunday.” These summaries from popular websites offer a great, easy-to-access resource.
On a more practical note, closer to my heart at least, the Google Assistant was able to search through recipes on the Food Network, Martha Stewart, and AllRecipes websites to provide a wide variety of recipes. In addition, when some of the recipes were read, the Google Assistant allowed the recipe to be read, one ingredient at a time, or one section at a time—ingredient list and later, step-by-step instructions.
Connecting to Other Appliances
Google Home, takes advantage of at least a dozen other Smart Appliances, such as lights, thermostat, an air conditioner, locks and more. For example, with some smart lighting from Belkin WeMo, the Google Home can be connected to the lighting using the WIFI, and lighting turned on, shut off or dimmed using a voice command to Google Home. You might also receive a verbal report on which lights are on in which rooms, if they were all connected. Wouldn’t it be great if some of those hard-to-use flat panel, LED ovens and microwaves could be controlled using the Google Home (I didn’t find one currently working with the Google Home, I am just dreaming about future possibilities!)?
Is Google Home Right For Me?
Neither Google Home nor Amazon Echo is able to send an email, a text message, or make a phone call, and these are big limitations if this is a user’s only access to the internet. To date, the Google Home will not access an Audible account to read narrated, Audible books, and the Amazon Echo will. If book reading is a priority, then the Google Home may not be the right device for you. If the goal is to get access to one of the easy-to-use digital assistants that will provide quick access to the internet and some everyday tasks, like timers, alarms, dictionary, etc. using logical voice commands, then Google Home is a compelling introduction. Google Home is also easy to find at local retailers like Target or Best Buy for $129.
Of course, if you haven’t picked out a present for Mom yet, the Google Home may be the perfect choice for Mother’s Day!
For an audio presentation comparing Google Home with Amazon Echo listen to this presentation at the Wells Maine, Low Vision Support Group.