Google Home Hints at Our Ambient Computing Future

Posted on May 25, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Cloud, Hardware, Smart Home with 25 Comments

Google Home Hints at Our Ambient Computing Future

Like other digital assistant appliances, Google Home can answer questions, trigger entertainment experiences, and control smart home devices. But one of the things I’m most interested in is Google’s embrace of the various screens we all have around the home. And in just one day with the appliance, I’m already pretty impressed with where this is heading.

Google promises to add hands-free calling, proactive assistance (e.g. voice-based notifications), and other features to Google Home and its underlying Google Assistant technologies in 2017. But I was perhaps most intrigued, during the firm’s Google I/O 2017 presentation, by a feature called visual responses, which I see as a first step to what I call ambient computing. This feature will let you speak to the Home device and then receive visual responses on your phone. For example, you could ask for directions, find out about the current traffic conditions verbally, and then have the results sent to Google Maps on your phone so you could navigate to that destination.

The coming visual responses feature is one example of how Google overcomes the fact that its Home appliance doesn’t have a screen. But Google Home doesn’t need a screen, because we already have various screens—TVs, of course, plus smartphones and tablets—around our homes. And some of the ways you can interface with those screens using Google Home today are quite interesting. And useful.

As you may know, I have a Samsung 4K UHD Smart TV. And I was curious to see how or if these two modern devices—the TV and Google Home—could interact.

I suspect that Google Home will someday be able to turn that TV on and off, though it doesn’t work at the moment. Or, as the appliance tells me, “Sorry, power controls is not yet supported.” So that’s out of the running for now.

The Samsung TV also comes with some form of non-Chromecast-based casting technology, which I find irritating. (Many modern TVs simply support Chromecast natively, and it’s emerged as a great de facto standard.) So I added a 4K/UHD/HDR-capable Chromecast Ultra dongle to the set, which enables Google Home support for that display.

So I can say “OK, Google, play Narcos on TV” to cast Netflix to the Samsung TV (via the Chromecast) and begin playing the hit TV series. I can then say things like “OK, Google, turn on captions,” “OK, Google, pause” and so on to control the show going forward.

This requires me to have named the Chromecast Ultra as “TV,” by the way. Because I have multiple Chromecasts in the house, Google Home won’t know which one to use unless I specify its name. I originally had named this device something ponderous—like Living room 4K or whatever—but brevity is key with voice controls. So TV it is.

You can also cast a Google Photos-based slideshow to the TV this way using a phrase like “OK, Google, play a slideshow of Paris on TV.” I assume you can then shuffle the order in which the pictures appear, or whatever, but I had already moved on to adding music to the slideshow. Which … doesn’t work.

Well, it does work. You just can’t trigger two things—in this case, a photo slideshow and music—from two different apps (Google Photos, Google Play Music) at the same time on the same Chromecast. With the slideshow playing on the TV, I can say something like “OK, Google, play U2,” and it will play my U2 playlist. On the Google Home’s speaker, not on the TV.

Honestly, it sounds OK. But in the future, I will connect a Chromecast Audio to speakers around the TV and could simply trigger the sound to those devices instead. This is probably workable for most people.

Speaking of music, you can, of course, cast music to a (non-audio-only) Chromecast as well. So I can say something like “OK, Google, play U2 on TV,” and the playlist will play via the TV’s speakers and display album art on screen. It’s not horrible.

One final note. I had wondered about Google’s ability to not have multiple devices trying to respond to the same requests. Well, good news: They’ve apparently figured that out.

Sitting on my couch in front of the Google Home, and with my Google Assistant-powered Pixel XL next to me, I can speak commands, which I know are directed at the appliance, not the phone. And sure enough, the Google Home handles whatever request I’ve made while the phone springs to life … and then reports that the request is begin answered on another device.


I’ll keep experimenting. But I can already see the basics at work here, and it’s not hard to imagine a future in which you eventually have multiple devices like this around your home, and the ability to interact with screens in different rooms, and they all just work harmoniously together. But even today, this interaction is pretty great.


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Comments (25)

25 responses to “Google Home Hints at Our Ambient Computing Future”

  1. Bats

    I'm so proud of Paul. Not only has he chose to be Scroogled, but he's loving it.

    • Nicholas Kathrein

      In reply to Bats:

      It takes a lot to over come tribalism. Some people can't even entertain the idea that they can be wrong about something. These companies don't deserve our devotion. We all should gets whats best for "us" meaning try everything and see what works. Far to many people will only use apple or google of MS. Try it all. See what works. If you are ultra privacy conscious then buy what your comfortable with knowing you'll never be able to have the most cutting edge stuff as information is needed to do that. You can say Google sells your information but it doesn't. If you feel it does then it's up to you what you want to use. Just lets not act like our wants/needs over rules everyone else.

      • VancouverNinja

        In reply to Nicholas Kathrein:

        Google profits off of our personal data - you need to accept that. You may not think it is a big deal but it is huge and they are trying find even more ways to connect all the dots right down to our genetic make up. It's not an issue of "tribalism" it is an issue of the type of motive behind trying to get our business; plus most of their offerings are either 2nd best or 3rd best not what I want to live with.

  2. dcdevito

    This is simply Google's answer to the Amazon Echo Show. But I do agree with you Paul.

    And now that Assistant is on the iPhone, I sold my Oneplus 3 and am happy with iOS. Assistant works great on the iPhone. Life is good.

  3. chaad_losan

    There is a long way to go. The "standards war" is just beginning. Eventually every one will have to agree on a hardware agnostic protocol. So you can use any device from any manufacturer that work together. But I don't expect this to shake out for another 5 years or more.

  4. Omega Ra

    I like to use "Hey Google" Instead of OK as my phone doesn't respond to Hey

  5. jgraebner

    Although I've been intrigued by these devices (both the Home and the Echo) all along, I never really saw a strong need for one and hadn't made any plans to buy one. I ended up getting a Google Home for Christmas, though, and have been surprised by how much my family uses it. Admittedly, it has cost me a bit more money as I ended up getting a couple Chromecast Audios (for playing music in other rooms) and a Hue lights set up. We already had a Nest thermostat and being able to control it by voice is especially convenient. I particularly like that I can ask the Home "What's the temperature in here?" to quickly find out what the thermostat is set to.

    I've also been surprised how often we use it for music, since I figured I'd still mostly prefer to play music through our stereo system most of the time. For the most part, I've found that the audio quality of the Home is good enough for playing background music most of the time and the convenience of it means we are often turning on music at times when we probably wouldn't have bothered getting the stereo up and running and selecting something via our Squeezebox or some other playback device.

    As useful as it is, there are some weird gaps still. I'm pretty surprised at how often it responds that it doesn't understand when asked basic informational questions (such as trivia or historical). I think it basically only knows how to respond to such queries when they would have returned a suggested response in a Google search, but they really do need to increase the sophistication here. The other really huge gap is that it doesn't yet let you play music (by voice control) that you have uploaded to Google Play Music by title or album. It can play uploaded music if it is in a playlist and it can play by title or album anything that is in the Play Music subscription library, but it really should be able to play anything in my library, even if I uploaded it. I have quite a bit of fairly esoteric music in my collection that isn't in the subscription library, so I do bump into this fairly often. The fact that the Home also works as a casting target provides a workaround, but obviously that bypasses the Home's main purpose. Finally, it still isn't very good at compound requests. The best example is that you can't tell it to "Shuffle play" music. Instead, you have to tell it to start playing something and then do a second request to shuffle. This has resulted in the first song in our playlists getting played an awful lot.

    Best part about the Home, though, is that it is a platform and is almost sure to eventually improve to eliminate these gaps as long as Google continues supporting it.

  6. SvenJ

    Hey @JerryH over in premium. I saw your post talking about timers. Does Google Home let you 'name' your multiple timers, so you can ask, how long on the spaghetti timer, or will it tell you the 'garlic bread timer' is up? Echo does not. You can set multiple timers, and if you ask about time left, it will say you have one timer with 5 minutes left and another with 7 minutes left. When they run out, it just beeps. No indication of what timer, by number, name, nothing.

    We do use the timer function a lot on the echo, but it really is very basic. I've always been disappointed that Cortana doesn't speak reminders as well. If I say, verbally, Cortana, remind me to start the oven at 4PM, she should, at 4PM, say out loud, it is time to start the oven, not just pop up a notice on a screen somewhere. If Google Home does that sort of thing, her value goes up dramatically in my view.

    Anyone with a Home is certainly welcome to weigh in here. ;)

  7. VancouverNinja

    Could the thing look any uglier?

  8. SvenJ

    I'm very interested in Google Home as I find my Pixel does a much better job at understanding speech/conversation than Cortana, Siri, or my Echos. I have two of the latter, and am considering more. (three story house) I use Echo for some search capability, but mostly as an interface to my Insteon based home control, and my Harmony based entertainment control. Guess what Google Home does not (yet?) support. Insteon and Harmony. Google has added tons of stuff since release, so I have hope that they will eventually support the stuff I already have invested in, but the timing is going to matter. Once I get a couple more Echo's, replacing them with Home's becomes less palatable. Unfortunately for Siri and Cortana, it doesn't look like either will be in the running any time soon.

  9. Chris_Kez

    I just can't get on board with Google. I hate advertising and marketing and the whole idea of companies trying to steal our attention to shovel crap at us- and this is essentially the entirety of Google's business model. Do other companies suck up data? Sure, but none like Google- and none of them are the world's largest advertising platform. The "do no evil" mantra, and the way they dress up all of their stuff in shiny, happy, whimsy just makes it seem that much worse to me.

    I wish they would offer paid services, and come up with a way to do more with anonymized data.

    • Bill Russell

      In reply to Chris_Kez:

      I hear you but I'm glad I don't hate companies just for making money from advertising. We wouldn't have TV, radio, newspapers and the internet and would have to be probably a communist society. Its a necessary "pillar of capitalism". Advertising is *good*, but of course there is just so much junk and scams out there its easy to forget that. With Google your data is put to work for you at least equally as to them. If you don't like it, then don't use it. Google's business model means they want the web to be good place to visit and are working to help ads be higher quality and contribute a lot to internet security and standards. On the other hand "paid" microsoft would love nothing more than lock you into a browser with non-standard web extensions if they can (as back in the IE days). I'm not saying its because anyone is intentionally planning that way but its naturally driven by their business model. I don't know how anyone would create these useful assistants and AI based on your data without slurping up as much of your data as they can and being thought of as creepy and questionable. They are as open about it as can be, I believe. As long as it appears to be a quid pro quo, more or less and I believe google is as good intentioned a company as anyone. If you don't then you don't. Some people just don't like some things for some reason. I don't particularly like MS, Apple and Oracle for example but I understand no one is an angel of selflessness, particularly not a business.

      • VancouverNinja

        In reply to Bill Russell:

        Can't agree. Google is an egregious company when it comes to obtaining one's truly personal data, they are even up to this crap with their gene mapping company and it is pretty ugly stuff. Supporting the worst company for stealing peoples private data, at least that I have ever come across, is your choice but there are plenty of people that understand Google is not a cute and cuddly vendor.

        • George Rae

          In reply to VancouverNinja:
          Do please name a few companies that fit your "cute and Cuddly" unicorn mythos. If you say Apple or Microsoft, Samsung, Amazon, Facebook, Directv, cell companies etc, I'll throw up in my mouth a little bit.Then start laughing. At least Google is straight up about what they collect and let you see it, delete it, or modify settings. They don't steal anything, we enter into a bargain getting free great services services for data that others collect don't tell you what and who for, and give back nothing..

  10. Lateef Alabi-Oki

    You need to enable CEC on the HDMI port your Chromecast is connected to if you want Google Home to wake up your TV. Mine wakes up my TV when I cast to it from Google Home.

  11. Waethorn

    Between Microsoft and Google, I'd rather go Google at this point.

    Another day, and another 3 borked PC's in for repairs due to faulty Windows 10 updates - and it's not even noon yet.

  12. JerryH

    Glad to see you have joined the party Paul. I've been doing all of this for many months and am up to 4 Google Home devices to cover the whole house. You are correct that with some of the more standard cast enabled TVs CEC (power control) is indeed built in. For example a Vizio M65-D0 which I have works fine with it. TV is in normal "off" mode (which is partially "on" so it can respond to the remote, etc.). Say, "Hey Google, play The Key of Awesome Tribute to Ridiculous Voices from YouTube on Living Room TV" and boom, TV turns on and it starts playing (and it is a pretty funny piece to boot). I use it all the time with Audio Chromecasts too. I have 4 of them and also a Brookstone Big Blue Party (powered portable speaker with audio Chromecast built in). It works great to say things like, "Hey Google, play Pop Life in the 80's from Google Play Music on Downstairs Group" and have all three downstairs audio Chromecasts start going - synced up like a Sonos but for a lot less money. This morning while leaving the house it was, "Hey Google, turn off all the lights in the kitchen" and it responded by saying "OK, turning off two lights" as I walked out. Last night, I was doing the chemicals in the hot tub and my daughter was cooking about three different meals. I had "Hey Google, set a timer for the hot tub for 20 minutes" and it told me OK and that there were two other timers already (for different things cooking). During the evening we must have used at least 8 timers...

  13. wolters

    The entire Echo Vs, Google home battle is a tough one. We are entrenched in the Amazon world and Echo makes a lot of things convenient. Plus Echo handles music much better than Google Home, especially when you want to simply shuffle your personal music library in Google Music. I think Google Home wins hands down on asking for random facts and getting answers where Alexa "doesn't know that."

    For now, I'm sticking with Echo but will keep the Google Home and see how it evolves.

    • Nicholas Kathrein

      In reply to wolters:

      The kicker for Google Home is the Google Audio pucks for streaming music. Saying to my Google Home to "play Pandora to the home group" and getting music out of 3 speaker systems in the kitchen, living, and bedroom is awesome!

  14. Angusmatheson

    I've always thought that virtual assistants is an interesting miss for Apple. They clearly saw the potential for what is clearly they need computing UI in Siri. Bought it, and they put it on the phone, and let it languish. Let the Guru leave (not unlike Andy Rubin leaving Microsoft after Danger was bought for the vision in the Sidekick). By showing the idea Siri to everyone, and doing nothing Apple blew their head start. And many point that that Google seems better positioned to succeed in this natural language, mostly spoken user interface that uses its knowledge of you and your surroundings to make sense of what is said. I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Apple had let Siri's inventors, Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer, and Tom Gruber, have a building with all the engineers and resources they needed like Seve Jovs and the Mac and Scott Forstall and the iPhone. Instead they all left. And Siri is no better, and in truth probably worse, then Google Assistant, Alexa, and Cortana (and we'll see about Bix). What a missed oppertunity - but it was a difficult time at Apple with Steve Job's death, and other big company aqui-hires Andy Rubin and Microsoft (although the then did pretty good for Google), Tony Fadel and Google, Notch and Microsoft - have not been able to do anything significant once they joined a giant company. Now everyone is working on it, and Apple is hamstringing Siri with pricancy concerns that will stop it from being as good as other who do not have that those concerns.

  15. Jorge Garcia

    I need a 19-24" TV that I can put on my kitchen counter or maybe hang on a wall in my breakfast area. It has to have Google assistant built-in, and be able to power itself on (wake itself up, more accurately) upon hearing a voice command from a groggy person who is walking towards the coffee maker. THEN, AND ONLY THEN, WILL GOOGLE HAVE MY MONEY.