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.

Smart.

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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