Google Announces Major Improvements to Google Home and Assistant

A year ago, Google announced its Assistant personal digital assistant technology and the Assistant-powered Home appliance. This year, both products are being significantly upgraded.

Both products are key to Google’s version of this “ambient computing” future I’ve been discussing lately, where you can interact with technology using normal conversations. For this to work, Google Assistant needs to be available everywhere you are, so Home is a key part of the strategy, too, since you can place these devices around your home.

Google Assistant is a no-brainer, of course, but a year ago I felt that Google Home would like likewise be quite successful: After all, Google already dominates mobile computing and consumer cloud services. That didn’t happen: The initial version of this product seemed incomplete when it finally shipped in late 2016. And I returned mine without even opening the box.

But credit Google with quickly improving Assistant and Home with new skills and capabilities. Even before Google I/O, these products had improved in major ways; in fact, Google added over 50 new features since the product launched. But Google also put Home and Assistant front and center at this week’s I/O conference. And things have improved dramatically yet again.

During the Google I/O keynote address, CEO Sundar Pichai revealed that the company’s speech recognition error rate has fallen below 5 percent, and this technology has gotten so good, Google Home can now support multiple users, providing a personalized experience for everyone.

Later in the keynote, Google VP of engineering Scott Huffman provided a lot more detail, noting that Assistant is now available on over 100 million devices (most of which are phones, of course). And 70 percent of the queries that Assistant handles are now natural conversations, and not just keyword searches, as is more typical with Google Search. And we see with other personal digital assistants, like Cortana, many queries are follow-ups, which continue a conversation.

Huffman walked through a number of new features coming to Google Assistant this year. Among them:

Support for typed queries. One of the issues with conversational computing, of course, is that it’s not always comfortable or possible to speak out loud. So Google is adding the ability to type to Assistant on the phone.

Google Lens support. Assistant will also work with Google Lens so it can have a conversation about what you’re looking at. In a neat demo, Huffman showed how Assistant

Available on iPhone. In keeping with Google’s desire to making Assistant more ambient—that is, available everywhere—the firm has ported the solution to the iPhone.

Available everywhere (coming soon). And speaking of “everywhere,” Google is going to help others bring Assistant to any product via a new Google Assistant SDK. “Speakers, toys, drink-mixing robots,” whatever. Sony, JBL, Panasonic, LG, Anker, Polk, Bang & Olufsen, and many others have already signed up. Hey, Sonos. Seriously.

Support for many more languages. And here is the area where I really hope Microsoft is paying attention: Starting this summer, Assistant will roll out in French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, and Japanese on Android and iPhone. By the end of 2017, Assistant will also support Italian, Spanish, and Korean.

More skills in more places. Like Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant is extensible with third-party skills—which Google calls actions—that dramatically enhance this solution over time. So there are obviously more skill becoming available all the time, but the big news here is that these skills are now available on Android and iPhone in addition to the Home appliance.

Transactions. Google is rolling out what it calls a complete system for transactions so that you will be able to buy things from Assistant now too. In a demo, the presenter used Assistant to set up a food delivery from Panera using an interesting conversational transaction.

Home automation integration. Assistant already supports smart home devices, and now there are over 70 companies that have signed on to integrate their products with this technology.

From here, Google moved on, naturally, to Google Home, its own home-based smart device. And as with Assistant, it had some interesting announcements about new Google Home features and functionality. These include:

Broader availability. This summer, Google Home will become available in Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Japan. (It’s in the US and UK now.)

Proactive assistance. Starting this summer, Google Home will automatically notify you when something important happens. These cues can be visual—a light indicator on the device to prompt you to ask what’s up—but will expand over time.

Hands-free calling. As with Amazon Echo, Google Home will soon support free hands-free calling, offering an interesting replacement for a land line. It will even link your mobile number to your smartphone so calls are identified correctly.

More entertainment. Spotify is already available on Google Home if you have a paid subscription, but now the free version of the service is exclusively available on Google’s device. Google is also adding support for Soundcloud and Deezer and, more important, is bringing Bluetooth support to all existing Home devices. That means you will be able to play any audio from your Android handset or iPhone. Google is also adding additional partners like HBO NOW, Hulu, HGTV, and many others, so you can direct Chromecast-based playback from the Home device.

Visual responses. Google Home doesn’t have a screen, so Google is integrating its hands-free functionality with the smartphone screens we already have. So now you will be able to see visual results on that screen—or on a tablet or your TV, using a Chromecast—that accompanies the voice responses to your conversations. One great example: You can ask for directions and the results will appear on your phone screen.

This stuff is super-impressive. And it really highlights the danger of Microsoft’s wait-and-see approach to this technology


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Conversation 17 comments

  • bbold

    18 May, 2017 - 1:14 pm

    <p>I'm not sure how "hands free calling" over Echo is such a huge thing. I mean, these devices already exist, don't they? I know I can make and receive calls with my JBL speaker, etc. I'm not much of a Google fan, can you tell? lol 😉 Looking at the list, it seems like these things should already be available, or maybe I'm just living in the future. Thx for the reporting, though. More options for us consumers (and competition/innovation&nbsp;with the hardware/software partners)&nbsp;is always a great thing.</p>

    • dhallman

      18 May, 2017 - 1:39 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#117757"><em>In reply to bbold:</em></a> Yes, this whole event looks like Build on steroids. Windows 10 on 500 million devices? Cute, Android is active on 2 billion. Cortana coming to a new speaker with a new skills kit? Cute, Home is coming out by 7 companies in 5 countries with (varying) support for 8 languages and already has multiple account support. Oh Microsoft…</blockquote><p><br></p>

      • lvthunder

        Premium Member
        18 May, 2017 - 4:08 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#117759"><em>In reply to dhallman:</em></a></blockquote><p>That's not a fair comparison. You can't count Windows 10 vs every version of Android. It would be fair to say Windows (7, 8, 8.1, and 10) vs Android or Windows 10 vs Android Nouget, but you either have to be general about both of them or neither of them.</p>

  • Mark from CO

    Premium Member
    18 May, 2017 - 2:44 pm

    <p>Paul:</p><p>Microsoft's 'wait and see' approach is singularly reflective of having no strategy at all. Under Nadella, it seems Microsoft's goal is to feed off the breadcrumbs that fall from Apple, Google, and Amazon's sumptuous table. I don't get it. Help, please.</p><p>Mark from CO</p>

    • VancouverNinja

      Premium Member
      18 May, 2017 - 3:06 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#117777"><em>In reply to Mark from CO:</em></a></blockquote><p>Wrongo Dongo. Exactly the opposite. Google is getting zipped this fall. MS has a clear roadmap, Google just gave up all the goods; which is not much really. Now MS can do their launch in the fall with months of planning on how to make their Cortana launch simply outshine Google home. I have never met a human being using a Google Home product. Since Cortana works with Android and PCs and Google doesn't support Windows 10 Cortana cleans up in the fall. MS has google over a barrel; don't develop for Windows 10 miss out completely, develop for Windows 10 have a chance to get some market share but further validate the platform. Bam baby! No way out.</p>

      • Mark from CO

        Premium Member
        18 May, 2017 - 3:40 pm

        <blockquote><a href="#117777"><em>In reply to Mark from CO:</em></a></blockquote><p>We'll see.&nbsp; Microsoft has little leverage, in terms of ecosystem support and it doesn't have the customers that Google and Amazon do.&nbsp; Nor their level of engagement.&nbsp; Nor their financial strength.&nbsp; Not their commitment to make things happen.&nbsp; I think Google loves 'the barrel' Microsoft has over them.</p><p>Mark from CO</p>

        • VancouverNinja

          Premium Member
          18 May, 2017 - 9:46 pm

          <blockquote><a href="#117795"><em>In reply to Mark from CO:</em></a></blockquote><p>Yikes. They have plenty of leverage everyone either owns a pc of some sort or they have a Mac. Very few people do not own one of those two products. I would argue that since Microsoft owns the PC space and it is open to working with all mobile devices for any of its products (where it makes sense), they have the clear advantage. Amazon is not even close to a Microsoft level of consumer customers. Google only has a fragemented OS on mobile devices – they are much weaker than most understand and they have the most to lose in the mobile space. "Nor the financial strength" that's funny, like very funny. I would recommend you revisit what MS has been work tirelessly towards over the last several years – its foundation is commitment. No other competitor is even close to what they are pulling off. And no google is most likely in panic mode over Windows 10 S – there is zero reason to buy a chrome book anymore, it holds zero advantage over Windows 10 S, and Google cannot match the value proposition. The last shoe to drop is mobile – google is in a great but also difficult position of having to hold on to their market share and if MS launches anything to upset the status quo in the mobile phone space they have no reason for android users to stay on Android.</p>

          • robsanders247

            Premium Member
            19 May, 2017 - 4:20 am

            <blockquote><a href="#117876"><em>In reply to VancouverNinja:</em></a></blockquote><p>But does Microsoft have the support from other vendors to build a third "smart appliance" platform next to Apple HomeKit and Google "Nest". And apart from that, the majority of the learning is done through the search engine. I doubt Bing sees enough traffic to do this effectively. Another interesting thing I was reading this week was that Google is also putting efforts into doing on-device machine learning. Which would require access to the native OS, again putting Cortana at a disadvantage over Google Assistant and Siri.</p><p><br></p><p>I hope Microsoft succeeds and builds a compelling solution that is available globally. I don't think there is a lack of resources or ideas to build this. I just wonder if there is enough focus within the company to really make this a success.</p>

  • Bats

    18 May, 2017 - 2:47 pm

    <p>Let's face it, Google stuff is fun.</p><p><br></p>

    • Tony Barrett

      18 May, 2017 - 3:41 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#117778"><em>In reply to Bats:</em></a></blockquote><p>You hit the nail on the head. Google products are fun, and Google themselves have a sense of humour. Something Microsoft lost a long time ago.</p>

    • lvthunder

      Premium Member
      18 May, 2017 - 4:11 pm

      <blockquote><a href="#117778"><em>In reply to Bats:</em></a></blockquote><p>All this new stuff is fun. It doesn't matter what company. The new Amazon stuff is fun to their fans, the Google stuff is fun for their fans, the Microsoft stuff is fun to their fans, and the Apple stuff is fun to their fans (or at least will be at WWDC).</p>

    • obarthelemy

      20 May, 2017 - 2:17 am

      <blockquote><a href="#117778"><em>In reply to Bats:</em></a></blockquote><p>It is, but what it isn't is reliable, in the sense it'll stay available for long. And the roadmaps aren't murky, they're non-existent. I'm heavily invested in the Google ecosystem, and I find the unreliable side of it overshadows the fun side.</p>

  • rameshthanikodi

    18 May, 2017 - 5:25 pm

    <p>If OEMs jump on the SDK and start making their own Home speakers en masse, it will be a huge success.</p>

  • dcdevito

    18 May, 2017 - 6:59 pm

    <p>Paul, the Google Lens section is missing stuff…</p><p>Great read, thanks. I feel Google is now laser focused on AI and it's starting to show. The fact that Apple is so far behind makes them feel like we can all see the iceberg on the top deck but they refuse to acknowledge it.</p><p>Amazon is also on a tear but since they don't own a platform or ecosystem of their own I think they will fade fast. </p><p>I think it's time I pull the trigger and buy one, although I still think an updated version with refreshed hardware will be released this fall. </p>

  • MTrimmer

    Premium Member
    19 May, 2017 - 7:42 am

    <p>Google Home calling leapfrogged what Echo offers. Echo can only call another Echo or someone withe Echo app installed. Google Home will call any other phone. Plus the ability to link your mobile number makes it much more seamless for the person you are calling.</p><p><br></p><p>This could really make this device more interesting to broader audience. You basically have a zero cost landline that you can use to call anyone in your address book. Makes me wonder where is Microsoft's offer in this space. Once again, seems like Microsoft is late to offer a compelling competitive offer.</p>

  • awright18

    21 May, 2017 - 11:22 pm

    <p>Id like to see Microsoft or someone do something like Xamarin for assistants. Make one programming interface that works across all these platforms and make it easy to host on azure. I think Amazon has the biggest leg up here I don't see a clear winner anytime soon I this space.</p>

  • mortarm

    26 June, 2017 - 12:32 pm

    <p>&gt;…In a neat demo, Huffman showed how Assistant</p><p><em>Yeeees?</em></p><p>&gt;…will soon support free hands-free calling…</p><p>So, you currently have to pay for it?</p><p><br></p>


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