Monday, May 30, 2016

Smart, Natural, Google Home

Let the Games Begin!

The last two weeks have seen some announcements in the home automation voice assistant space.  The big news is that Google bowed their 'Google Home' product, an answer to Amazon's Echo.  Apple also is rumored to be working on a home version of Siri with maybe a camera.  And, just for kicks, Amazon released an in-browser version of Alexa more to explore the concept than anything really earth shattering.

For the sake of brevity (a first for me), I'm going to ignore Apple's home assistant for now.  They haven't made any official announcements and the camera thing... well, even the rumors are a little unsure how real that is.  It would be nice for context on who is issuing commands so that I can over ride the MSD's requests, but the privacy issues may be too much for most of us to bear.  Enough on that.  On to Google Home.

Okay, Home

I must confess that my first thought on Google Home was, "Why?"  Before reading any of the actual articles (because aren't headlines enough these days?), I saw this as nothing more than a re-packaging of "Okay, Google".  I could get much of the Echo style functionality by taking an old Android smartphone, plugging it in and killing the screen time out.  Then it would be 'always on' and therefore always listening for the command phrase.  Why do I need some multi colored, flashing upside-down truncated ice cream cone for which I'll need to find counter space and a plug?

And then I read some of the articles.  In particular, this one from TechTimes and this one from The Verge.

First, and maybe most importantly to me as I'm one of maybe five people with a Google Play Music Family subscription plan (the other four are the MSD and three friends piggy-backing), is that its music library will be much broader than Amazon Music (which I also have via my Prime subscription).  With the Echo, I'm always being told that music is not directly available through their service and that I'll need to go through Pandora or Spotify.  That's great, but I've got all of my playlists in Play Music, so for me this new Home is nice.  If you don't have a Play Music subscription, then YMMV.

It also has a better speaker, but if I'm truly concerned with sound quality, then none of these are really great.  I'm hoping that Google's product will be able to link to my Bluetooth enabled home theater receiver and power cycle it as needed when it is actually playing music and not just answering questions.  A sort of on-demand Chromecast audio.  I'd even be okay with it connecting via analog cables.

Do What I Mean

The other big thing is that it will be connected to Google's search capabilities.  They are the recognized leader in web searching and, with all human knowledge (and things that should not be knowledge) on the web, Google should be much better at answering those questions.  Furthermore, they have invested much in natural language search so that we all don't need to use their fancy search commands.  After all, no one is going to bellow "Okay, Google.  Find me a melon baller between five dollars dot dot twenty dollars."

For the smart home aficionado, this promises some real fixes.  Much of this has to do with naming conventions within the smart home arena.  Namely, that there are not any.  Right now, I've got my Echo connected to my SmartThings hub, allowing me to control my connected switches and devices with my voice.  However, I need to remember that I named the ceiling light in my master bedroom 'MBR Fan Light' and say it as "emm bee are fan light" if I want it to work.  Similarly with my Harmony remote hub.  I CAN turn my home theater on and off via Echo, but I need to remember that Harmony likes to start the name all of its activities with 'Play'.  The result is great sentence structure like, "Echo, turn on play netflix."  It is not natural.

My hope is that Google Home will be smart enough to parse more of this.  It will understand that 'MBR' is 'Master Bedroom.'  I will know that the word 'play' is not key to the task being asked of it.  That it will be able to search within the smart home database fields presented to it by the various hubs and devices and then apply natural language parsing to both the command and the fields.

Of course, I could just rename everything to something that makes sense to the Echo.  Put the whole point of this is to let other things do more of my thinking for me.

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