Voice assistants weigh in on Super Bowl LII

Today marks the 52nd Super Bowl, and quite a bit has changed since that first big game. Then, it was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. In 1967, the cost of a movie ticket was $1.25, and color TV was just starting to become popular.

Today, more than fifty years later, we can now stream the big game to our pocket computers and have artificially intelligent assistants sitting around in our homes to keep us up to date on predictions.

That said, the three big voice assistants seem to have a different approach on predicting who will win the Super Bowl today.

Apple’s Siri is playing it straight. When asked who will win the Super Bowl, she simply responds with data:

“I’m hearing that the Patriots are favored to beat the Eagles by 4.5 points.”

Google Assistant, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want to plant a flag in the sand. The voice-powered AI has a few different responses to the question of who will win the big game, each less informative than the last.

  • “Both teams are hungry for victory, which is important. While the players will be leaving everything on the field, I want you to leave nothing in the chip bowl.”
  • “All I can say is it’s going to be fierce. At some point, both quarterbacks will yell ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ and call an audible, but don’t be afraid. You’re not in any danger.”
  • “I don’t have any answers but I can confidently say this: I predict a touchdown within the first sixty minutes.”

In each of these three responses, the voice of Google Assistant is accompanied by roaring crowds. Which, let’s be honest, makes these responses even more ridiculous.

This brings us, finally, to Amazon Echo. When asking Alexa who will win the Super Bowl, Amazon has decided to take their voice assistant in a more human direction. Pats fans, brace yourselves!

“The team favored to win is the (cough). Is the (cough). Excuse me. Is the Patriots. (Clears throat.) That was tough to get out. But I’m flying with the Eagles on this one because of their relentless defense and the momentum they’ve been riding off their underdog status. E-A-G-L-E-S! Eagles!”

Funny enough, Amazon is anything but an underdog and more aptly represented by the Patriots than by the Eagles.

But, in any case, you should have some fun chatting it up with your favorite AI before the game. Unless it’s Siri. That’s just boring.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Oops! Don’t say ‘Google’ in your Alexa voice app, Amazon says

The competition between Alexa and Google Assistant is fierce. How fierce? Cover all of Las Vegas in Google Assistant ads for CES fierce? Put voice assistance in weird things like a light switch or a fridge fierce? How about “don’t dare utter our competitor’s name in your voice app” fierce?

Yep, Amazon has banned Alexa app developers from saying “Google” in their Alexa skills, it seems.

One Alexa developer accidentally discovered this by submitting a voice app to Amazon with a bug.

Jo Jaquinta’s Alexa game skill Mind Maze was supposed to remind users upon exit how to relaunch the skill in the future, by saying something along the lines of: “to play again, say ‘Alexa open Mind Maze.'”

When Amazon’s review testers took a look at the skill, however, it returned the response he had built for the Google Home variation of the app instead. Whoops!

According to the reviewer, the skill had said: “If you enjoy card games, you can say ‘OK Google, talk to 21 Blackjack’…”

The skill was then promptly rejected because you can’t say “Google” in an Alexa app, you see.

Specifically, the reason Amazon provided is that an Alexa skill “should not promote Google Home.”

Wrote the reviewer:

Actual result: The skill promotes google home by saying ‘OK Google’ when user utters Stop or Cancel.

Expected result: The skill should not promote Google Home.

Of course, not sending Alexa skill users to a competing product makes sense for Amazon, and the bug certainly would have created a confusing experience for users had it gone live.

However, is somewhat telling that Amazon’s rejection was not because the skill was offering the incorrect exit phrase, because it would have led to user confusion, or because it violated some sort of developer guidelines. (Nowhere does the Alexa Skills developer agreement prohibit “promoting” the competition, after all.)

It was banned for reminding Alexa users about Google Home. And that’s just not allowed.

(Amazon has been reached for comment, and we’ll update when one is provided.)

Google is rolling out a fix for those Home-related WiFi issues

In the latest of a recent spate of bugs plaguing Google’s most recent hardware offerings, a number of Home and Chromecast users have been reporting issues around their devices’ WiFi connectivity this week.

Google has since acknowledged the issue on its support page, noting that “In certain situations, a bug in the Cast software on Android phones may incorrectly send a large amount of network traffic which can slow down or temporarily impact Wi-Fi networks. The specific impact to the network will vary depending on the router.”

The company will be offering up a fix for the issue, which is set to start rolling out to its devices via a Play services update starting tomorrow.

Initial reports appeared to center around TP-Link’s popular line of routers, and the networking company has since issued a firmware fix along with a stop gap, telling users to reboot their router or “try disabling the ‘Cast’ feature on your Android device to help mitigate the issue until an update is released to permanently fix this issue on the device itself.” The issue appears to be even more widespread, however, impacting other popular wireless names like Netgear and Linksys.

Google, similarly, is suggesting users try reboot their handsets and checking for a router firmware upgrade in the meantime. 

The bug appears to be a minor one, but it’s the latest in a line of recent issues that have hitting number of Google-branded hardware devices, including the Pixel 2, Home Mini and Pixel Buds.

Google launches smart displays with JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony

For the longest time, we’ve been waiting for Google to bring its Assistant to devices with a screen. After all, voice assistants are great — until you need some visual information to go with their answers. To address this, Amazon launched the Echo Show and Spot last year and now it’s Google’s turn. But it’s not launching a Google Home with a screen. Instead, the company today announced it is working with JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony to launch new smart displays later this year.

Gummi Hafsteinsson, the product management director for Google Assistant, told me these touch-enabled devices, which Google likes to call “smart displays,” will support all of the standard Google services you would expect to find on what is essentially a Google Home with a screen. Think YouTube, Google Photos, Duo for video calling and more. In addition, though, Google will open the platform to developers, who will be able to write their own actions (which is what Google now calls any… well… action you perform with the Assistant).

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The smart displays also will feature all of the usual Google notifications, similar to the old Google Now screen on Android. This means you’ll see upcoming appointments, reminders, a graphical view of what traffic on your route to work looks like, etc. And while it’s not in use, the display can show you photos from Google Photos, just like your Chromecast.

Given that these are Google-enabled displays, you’ll even be able to cast videos directly to them, though, given their size, that’s probably only interesting if you plan on watching a lot of YouTube videos in your kitchen.

“One thing we’ve noticed is that as people have conversations with the Assistant, there are times where you would love to have a device with a screen,” Hafsteinsson told me ahead of the announcement.

Prices for these smart displays will likely fall in around $200. Lenovo plans to charge $199 for the eight-inch version of its Smart Display and $249 for its 10-inch display. Other partners haven’t announced pricing yet. Most of the devices we’ve seen so far feature HD displays and all of the usual connectivity options.

For now, it’s not clear when exactly these devices will go on sale, but JBL says it will sell its JBL View in the summer (but only in the U.S.) and Lenovo is targeting a similar date.

It’s worth noting that there’s another partner involved here, too: at the heart of these devices is Qualcomm’s new Home Hub platform. The company is launching two new system on chips at CES this year (the SDA 624 and SDA 212) that support Google’s Android Things platform. The 624, specifically, is what’s powering these smart displays thanks to its support of video cameras and touch displays.

Seshu Madavapeddy, Qualcomm’s VP of product management for IoT, told me his company is making a major investment in IoT devices for the home and he believes that Google is taking the right approach by making Android Things — and hence the Google Assistant — available on multiple platforms.

Google also is bringing the Assistant to more Android TV devices. So far, the Sony Bravia TVs and Nvidia’s Shield TV were the only ones, but now Changhong, Funai and Haier are also on board and LG will soon launch a new line of LG TVs with the Assistant built in, too.

Google also is expanding its partner ecosystem in the headphone space, where JBL, LG and Sony are launching headphones that are optimized for use with the Assistant (so you can walk down the Las Vegas Strip and talk to the Assistant).

While it’s no surprise that Google is interested in these smart displays, it’s a bit of a surprise that it’s working with partners first and not launching its own Google Home-branded device. Hafsteinsson likened this to Google’s approach to Assistant-enabled headphones. It launched these with Bose first and only then announced its own Pixel Buds (to middling reviews). Since we’ve already heard rumors about Google building its own device, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if Google launched its own smart display sometime in 2018, too.

Hafsteinsson also stressed that Google worked very closely with these partners. “We want to make sure we deliver a really good experience,” he told me, stressing that in these early days “you want to make sure that the quality matters as much as the quantity.” He also noted that opening up the Assistant ecosystem allows for more differentiation. “People have preferences for a particular design, audio quality, etc.,” he told me. “People look at other factors beyond the assistant.”

Google says it sold a Google Home device every second since October 19

Google today announced that it sold “tens of millions of Google devices for the home” over the course of the last year and that it sold “more than one Google Home device every second since Google Home Mini started shipping in October.”

With roughly 6.75 million seconds since October 19 (the day the Home Mini officially went on sale), chances are that we’re talking close to 7.5 million Google Homes then.

Google went all-in on its Google Assistant and its various Google Home devices in 2017. The launch of the Google Home Mini, which you could easily buy for $29 (and occasionally for $19 with store credit) gave the company a low-price competitor to Amazon’s Echo Dots and even though it’s doubtful that Google made a lot of money of these sales, the move clearly paid off.

Sadly, Google isn’t saying what the sales breakdown between the Google Home Mini and the regular-sized version was, but it’s a safe bet that the company sold quite a few more of the lower-priced gadgets.

Google also today announced that its Assistant now runs on 400 million devices. This includes phones and watches, as well as devices from partners and even the iPhone. It’d be nice if we could compare Google’s numbers to Amazon’s, but Amazon is notoriously cagey about releasing any real sales numbers and instead opts for cute lists that are big on anecdotes and low on details.

Unsurprisingly, these large numbers also make the Google Assistant ecosystem more attractive to device manufacturers who want to integrate their services with the Assistant. For the most part, this means home automation services and hardware from the likes of Nest, Belkin, Samsung, Phillips and others. In total, there are now over 1,500 smart home devices from more than 225 brands that support the Google Assistant.

It’s probably a safe guess that Google isn’t randomly making today’s announcement ahead of CES, which is kicking off over the weekend. For the first time, Google is having a major presence on the showfloor of the event and most of this seems to be centered around the Assistant and its partner ecosystem. There’s a good chance we’ll see more Assistant-enabled hardware in the next few days.

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Google Home Max review

The days of buying devices or smart assistants will be over soon enough. Amazon and Google have both made clear their intention to make their respective AI device agnostic, so the days of the standalone Google Home or Amazon Echo might well be numbered.

Assistant and Alexa are already being built into everything from thermostats to lamps. In order for smart speakers to continue to have a spot in the home, they’re going to have to be speakers first, smart second. Proprietary products are already competing with offerings from big-name audio brands like Sonos, Sony and JBL. It’s no surprise, then, that we’ve seen Amazon, Apple and Google all head in that direction in recent months.

The new Echo kind of, sort of, edges in that direction with improved audio, but the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod offer up similar visions for a future in which smart assistants are a nice bonus on a device focused on delivering high-quality, floor-rumbling, room-filling audio. And with prices approaching $400 a piece, it had better be.

Maxed out

The Google Home Max isn’t effing around here. It’s big and it’s heavy. The thing weighs 12 pounds. I am painfully aware of this fact because I stupidly had Google deliver it to our office, and I then threw it in a backpack to take home to test. I am currently investigating our company’s worker’s comp policies for the strained muscle in my back.

I’m a weird outlier, of course (in many ways, but let’s focus on this one for now). The Home Max is very much not a portable speaker. In fact, if aesthetics dictate purpose in this case, it’s practically a piece of furniture, with a fabric-covered front inline with the rest of the Google Home offerings.

The Home Max isn’t a flashy speaker from a design perspective. Like the rest of the Home line, the Max is designed to blend in with its surroundings. It’s a boxy design that comes in black or white (charcoal or chalk, if you will). The Max is a minimalist, exchanging buttons for a simple touch panel on top, and interacting with a quartet of LED dots that shine beneath the fabric front. It’s a nice-looking device; understated, really.

The touch panel on top controls volume and turns the system on an off — though on occasion I had trouble getting it to work just right. Also of note is a switch on the back of the device that disables the microphone — a key privacy feature, though it would have been nice if the company had made it a bit more prominent the way Amazon does with the Echo line.

Back to the wall

What’s perhaps most interesting from the design perspective is that Google shied away from 360-degree audio here. Pretty much every standalone smart home speaker is built that way, ditto for the HomePod. The idea here, however, is that most people don’t actually plop their speakers in the middle of the room. That’s certainly the case with me. I brought the Max home and found a wall to place it up against.

Like the HomePod, the Max promises a customized audio footprint based on its surroundings. But instead of attempting to create some full audio picture of its surroundings, the system bases its audio fingerprint on the back wall, because much of what you’re hearing is that sound reflected back at you.

Google has deemed the feature “Smart Sound,” adjusting audio equalization based on the wall. The system utilizes on-board microphones to listen to the bass as it bounces against the wall, adjusting the sound settings accordingly. According to Google, the whole process only takes a few seconds, but the system draws this out to 30 seconds in order to gradually ease into a new sound.

The adjustment is subtle and fairly hard to detect. And, honestly, you probably won’t be running up against this too often, given what a pain in the ass (and lower back) the system is to move.

Maximum rock and roll

The Max sounds good. But is it $399 good? In a word, no. Given the way the smart speaker market has been playing out, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a price drop soon after the holidays — but as it stands, the Max doesn’t really live up to the expectations of such a pricey system.

But it does sound good enough that many users will be perfectly happy. The audio is loud and clear, and the bass bumps like a mofo, courtesy of a pair of 4.5-inch woofers. The audio quality is solid enough the company doesn’t have to sweeten things up with added bass, but the lows are pretty intense. Thankfully, you can tweak those settings to your liking through the Google Home app.

The whole “room filling” experience isn’t a problem, either. Granted, I’ve got a New York City apartment, so my space isn’t the most… demanding, but the single Max more than did the trick and continued to sound great, even at high volumes, much to the chagrin of my poor neighbors (but those jerks knew what they were signing up for when they moved in next door to a tech writer).

For those who need more than Max firepower, buying two will turn them into stereo speakers, enhancing the experience — and driving the price up to around $800, of course.

A helping hand

The Max is an audio-first device, but Assistant is where the system shines. In a way, it’s not surprising. Assistant isn’t just a platform for the company. It’s the culmination of much of what the company has been working on over the past decade and a half. It’s contextual search, AI and machine learning all rolled up into one. All of that helps Assistant with contextual search — using other information to grab the right results, rather than taking a shot in the dark.

It’s got that leg up on Alexa, though it’s still not perfect. My biggest annoyance with the system came when I was attempting to test its lyric feature. It’s a cool addition to Assistant’s music functionality, where you can say “play me the song that goes ‘I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham’ ” and it will play Up the Junction by Squeeze.

Or, as happened to me multiple times, it will play “Play that Song” by Train and you’ll want to toss the Max out a window, because Train is a terrible band that no one should listen to. Thankfully, it costs $399 and weights 12 pounds, so you leave it be and move on.

That said, the system’s voice recognition is solid, and I was impressed by its ability to recognize the “OK Google” and “Hey Google” commands, even when it was playing music at loud volumes. Also, kudos to Google for letting you set up a third-party music service as a default. Too often these devices are about locking users into a particular ecosystem. Here, I was able to set up Spotify out of the box (you also can use YouTube music and Pandora). So you don’t have to specify that you want to play a song on a given service.

If you want to play back audio from YouTube, on the other hand, you’ll need a YouTube Red account. Thankfully, the speaker ships with a free 12-month plan. The least Google could do with a $399 speaker.

Maxed out

That $399 price tag will be pretty hard for many to stomach, especially as more and more third parties come out with their own smart Assistant speakers. It says a lot that it’s $50 more than Apple’s premium speaker. Though the Home Max has some decided advantages over the HomePod, not the least of which is that it’s actually on the market right now. Apple’s offering, meanwhile, is slated for some time early next year.

On the whole, it’s a solid offering. Google Assistant is tough to beat and the hardware mostly stands on its own. It’s not the most stellar piece of audio equipment at its price point, but Google’s engineered something that works right out of the box, while Smart Sound means you won’t have to do any EQ fiddling in the off-chance that you end up moving it from its current position.

If you want to further customize it, that’s possible, too. The Google Assistant app is much more robust than Alexa. But plug-and-play capabilities will likely appeal to many users simply looking for a nice-sounding system that also can help get them ready for work in the morning.

Improving search and advertising are the next frontiers for voice-activated devices

Despite millions of orders for voice enabled devices, vendors have yet to map the uncharted territory of voice enabled search and advertising.

Indeed, as voice search expands — to the tune of 50 percent of all searches by 2020 (according to some estimates) — so, too, do opportunities for platforms to cash in beyond products and services. In fact, in an earnings call last year, Google acknowledged voice search will drive industry-wide change, but it did not detail its plans.

These devices are already in a massive (and growing) number of American homes.Amazon’s Black Friday weekend sales saw millions of orders for voice-enabled devices that could help generate $10 billion in additional revenue by 2020, split evenly between device sales and shopping, according to investment bank RBC Capital.

And they’re already being used to make significant numbers of purchases. A study from NPR and Edison Research found 26% of participants use their smart speakers regularly to add to their shopping lists and 57% have ordered an item through their smart speaker. Of these consumers, 59% said they have ordered a new product they have not previously purchased and 49% have reordered an item.

While industry observers like Duane Forrester, vice president of industry insights at data management firm Yext, say initial e-commerce transactions on these devices will likely remain reorders in the near term, that won’t be the case for long.

“There is a huge push… for the holiday season…and with so many new devices coming to market, we’re bound to see an upswing in initial order instances as well,” Forrester said.

That’s likely what Amazon is trying to achieve by enabling consumers to ask Alexa to shop Oprah’s Favorite Things and by offering incentives like early Black Friday deals via Alexa.

And while noting Alexa’s financial impact on Amazon “also carries significant uncertainty” because it’s early days in voice search, RBC said it sees “potential financial tailwind” in additional platform revenue, like the promotion of voice skills.

Meanwhile, Google’s partnerships with Walmart and Target  boost its ability to sell goods via Home –- and challenge Amazon in sectors like same-day delivery, Forrester said.

A Google spokesperson had no further comment. Bing also declined comment.

When asked about its monetization plans, Amazon sent the following statement: “Our focus is on building the best possible experience for our customers and the rest will take care of itself…”

While shopping is one piece of the voice-enabled search pie, it’s hardly the only one. Forrester said he has no doubt search engines have a plan for monetization given the billions of dollars in ad revenue at stake.

And Jacob Davis, head of search at digital marketing agency iCrossing, said interacting with a device like Alexa, in theory, provides a smooth, quick interaction, which is what consumers want, so we’re likely to see platforms continue to invest and advertisers pay attention to “when they can throw money at it.”

But what does an ad look – or sound – like on Echo or Home?

On March 17, Google Assistant reminded some Google Home users that Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was in theaters in a break between traffic and news.

And while Burger King won a Grand Prix at Cannes for an ad that activated the devices with, “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?”, and South Park made voice-activated mischief of its own in the premiere of its 21st season, the Beauty and the Beast example is the closest the industry has come to overt advertising in voice-enabled devices to date.

A Google rep, however, said it “wasn’t intended to be an ad” and rather marked Google Assistant “[calling] out timely content.” (It was also reported no money was exchanged for the mention.)

That’s perhaps because there are a number of risks with voice advertising. And first and foremost are consumers resistant to advertising in a new medium.

Tim Eschenauer, group director of search and social at media and marketing services company Mindshare North America, noted users were unhappy with Google’s Beauty and the Beast promo in part because they had already shelled out $130 for the device on which they heard it.

“It’s one thing to run ads on a search engine, which is free – but in terms of personal assistants, this is going to be a challenge for Google if they want to grow share in that particular market from Amazon,” he added.

In addition, Forrester noted if consumers believe a voice answer is paid, they could lose trust and the credibility of the service could be damaged.

Trust will also play a key role when serving editorial content or making purchase decisions.

That’s according to Davis, who added, “When you can see multiple search results on a screen, a user has options – even if they are dictated by an algorithm. With voice alone, they might only be served one or two results without further prompting. Will that sit well with people? Likely not.”

Davis also noted voice eliminates visual brand assets like logos, packaging and colors that build credibility with consumers.

Yet another challenge lies in consumer reaction to voice results that are wrong or to a voice assistant that doesn’t fully understand a query, said Tom Caulton, digital marketing executive and SEO consultant at digital marketing firm Dijitul.

“Whereas when you type something on your phone, tablet or computer, it’s much easier to modify your search to get the results you were after,” he added.

Mike King, managing director of digital marketing agency iPullRank, noted another problem is there’s little data on performance in voice search, so it’s still hard for advertisers to know whether their efforts are worthwhile.

“We’ve seen some cool commercials that take advantage of it, but the real opportunity right now is making a hit song with, ‘Alexa, buy me groceries,’ in the chorus,” he said.

At the same time, Davis said ads are a natural extension for any platform fattening itself on consumer data – and particularly one so closely tied to commerce.

“What people have to understand is it won’t be ads in a very traditional sense of the word,” he added. “You won’t see TV spots, movie trailers or [out-of-home] billboards translated to just voice. You’ll see smart, data-led marketing that is more closely tied to making purchases and conversions.”

Pete Meyers, marketing scientist at SEO software and tools firm Moz, pointed to radio as a potential model, but said there will be a lot of trial and error.

“We have Google returning organic content [like Featured Snippets and local results] directly on voice, which means there’s a model for returning ads,” Meyers said. “What will work, resonate and be trackable has a lot of hashing out to do, but I think we have models of how this could evolve.”

And Forrester said consumers will eventually be able to identify an ad in this environment and become ad blind, which will spur further innovation in voice advertising.

For now, Meyers thinks search engines will look at custom content.

“Recipes are a good example right now. This is a type of result where voice search is unique from desktop or mobile and we get an experience tailored for voice and a search appliance,” Meyers said. “It’s likely that this type of content could be sponsored soon, such that money is changing hands, but consumers don’t see it as an ad in any overt sense.”

Incidentally, the rep said Google’s focus right now is on “creating a great user experience and making sure that the Google Assistant can help you get more things done in your day.”

What’s far more likely in the near term is Amazon and Google will use information from voice searches to push ads into other properties, like search results or email.

“This is the model for the walled gardens of today,” Davis said. “You might not necessarily see ads for golf clubs in Gmail after asking Google Home to help find the closest driving range, but you will give them another data point about your behavior and consumption habits. And all of that will roll up to inform their profile of you as you’re targeted in various ways across that company’s vast ecosystem.”

And, per Forrester, the data gleaned from voice is much richer, which will further enhance personalization, but the tricky part will be getting beyond ad blindness in Gmail and in search.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch