I’m not too sure just which phrase sums up the internet of things (IoT). In these early days, perhaps it’s the Wild West of legend or maybe it’s like Sicily during the bad old days of the Mafia. Is it gunslinging or a quick shot to the back of the head by one of the families?
The whole question has become very real to me in the last few days since Currys sent me Google Home to review.
Let me first of all describe my own internet setup here in Oxford and that will give you some idea of my conundrum. Or is it a dilemma? You can ask Google H to define a conundrum. And a dilemma. Oh and sometimes it uses Britannica as a source and at other times Wikipedia. There’s some kind of editorial judgment going on here but who is the editor, or team of editors? That is another Google puzzle. But as the lady says – and more of this later – “she is still learning”.
I run a fast Virgin Media broadband connection here with several devices depending on it, including a PC in the mancave at the end of my garden. I am a subscriber to Amazon Prime, have a Roku TV connected to the interweb and a smarty pants phone or two. I’ve also got Philips’ Hue lighting upstairs, downstairs and in my mancave. This Google stuff doesn’t half open up some braincells. But, let me tell you definitively, the Google robot does sometimes get it wrong. Yesterday I asked the lady of the house – that’s Google Home – whether it would rain. She came back with a pretty firm “no”. So I walked four yards and stood outside the back door where it was pouring it down.
It took me a day or two to decide my attitude to the new lady in my house. At first I was talking to her in a rather nasty tone and sometimes shouting too. But I decided to be nice to robots – they’re people too. Or some people are robots. The lines are getting blurred.
Right now Google Home in the UK comes with only one voice, coming with received pronunciation. It would be nice if in the future the designers could tweak the voice so that you could have, for example, a man or a woman speaking in a Brummy, Glaswegian or Cockney voice. A USA version now supports the ability for the machine to recognise up to six different voices – apparently we’ll get that upgrade here soon enough.
There’s a bit of a security problem too. A neighbour of mine, for example, managed to shout a command through my letterbox turning on a Barry Manilow album remotely – he’s not my favourite artist. But once you’ve got music playing you do really need to shout to turn it off – she couldn’t do that from outside my front door. I can imagine domestics too, where different members of a family override requests made by another.
There’s another, and in my view, more serious security problem. My neighbour, the one who shouted through my letterbox and according to Google Home is only 26 feet from my house – by car. I don’t use the car I don’t have to sometimes go over there but if I do need to access the internet, she has given me a password for her wi-fi system. Because the security is so poor, so far, on this device it means that I can access her device, play music on her machine, access the requests she’s made. Google really needs to address this problem.
And it would also be useful to be able to customise requests to the machine. Now, you have to start a request by saying “OK Google” or “Hey Google”. I’d like to say things like “Hi Darling”. Oh well, maybe not.
It does feel strange talking to a machine at first, but these days, of course, it’s very common to see people walking down the street apparently talking to themselves. When I was a kid, we used to think people like that were nutters. But everybody is a nutter in the 21st century.
The number of devices supported is really quite limited so far but include smart thermostats, lighting and other gizmos. I have a Roku system running on my TV, but Google doesn’t support this and I expect it never will, considering that it sells its own TV system, Chromecast. Which is supported, surprise, surprise. While it supports Spotify, Google Play and Tune In, currently it only supports Youtube in the USA.
You won’t be surprised to learn that it doesn’t support Amazon Music.
The device list includes Nest thermostats, Philips Hue, Samsung SmartThings, Belkin Wemo, Osram, TP-Link and a few others. Streaming devices supported include Vizio, Toshiba, Philips, Sony, Bang & Olufson, Grundig, and Pol Audio.
There are some other third party services available in the USA, but not here yet, according to the Google Home page.
Hue lighting systems are pretty expensive but I have several lights in my little house. It’s neat to be able to turn upstairs lights on by simply saying, “OK Google, turn upstairs on”. Google Home is downstairs in my back room, but if you shout commands down the stairwell she does listen to you.
Some of the features are really pretty good. You can build a shopping list but, as yet, you can’t delete it by voice command, only by using the app. And her recognition is a bit wobbly for some artists. She just couldn’t handle Yves Montand nor Françoise Hardy – but the Spotify app on your smartphone is a good way to browse for the gazillions of titles available on the service.
She/He/It also does a pretty fair job translating into other languages, as far as we can tell. The same neighbour who shouted through my letterbox is pretty fluent in Italian and was happy with the results.
This is a piece of cake. You plug Home into a spare socket, and download the Home app for either your Android or IOS device. When you run the app, it prompts you to enter different details – for example your wi-fi connection. When you’re done, you simply talk to the little blighter prefacing the request with either “OK Google” or “Hey Google”. Currently, Home supports both Spotify and Google Play – with Google enticing you to try a free subscription for the latter. If you want to use Spotify, you’ll have to upgrade to its Premium service. That costs £10 a month.
The basic Google Home system costs £129 here. But if you want to customise your gizmo by, for example, having a purple colour base, you can spend an extra £18 or so to do just that. Buying a system including Hue lighting, a smart TV, Chromecast and so on will cost you a pretty penny.
Google Home is a bright idea but there are some problems. Why, for example, does it not have access to the full search facilities of Google itself? For example, if you search for a person using a browser you get a wide range of results – but Home appears only to come up with Wikipedia and occasionally Brittanica results. Narrowing things down is a little bit tricky unless you’re confining yourself to running your Hue lights or finding out the weather rather than just looking out of the window. Google hasn’t migrated all the services to UK customers that it offers in the US, but perhaps when that happens the search facilities will be better. Oh, and the faster your internet connection, the better…