The era where mankind uses voice to talk with machines expands in Australia with Google Home selling from Thursday for $199.
Google’s online store, JB Hi-Fi, Harvey Norman, Officeworks, The Good Guys, Telstra, Optus, and Qantas Store will be the first to stock it.
Google also announced it would also sell its Wi-Fi mesh system routers also from Thursday. You put several of these Wi-Fi cylinder around the home and they combine to offer a more continuous strength Wi-Fi signal. They cost $199 each or $499 for a 3-pack designed for a large house.
But the launch on Thursday belongs to Google Home which is the first of the speaker-like personal assistants to officially go on sale in Australia.
Once installed at home, users can ask the speaker-sized Google Home to switch on and off lights and appliances, play music, maintain a shopping list, create and read out calendar entries, set timers, listen to personally configured news and weather, and generally perform the functions you perform with the Google Assistant on an Android smartphone.
The fact it is permanently connected to the functionality of your home makes it different from a phone assistant. And you don’t use your hands to operate it. They could be covered in flour as you asked Google home to read the next step of the cake recipe that you are preparing.
You will need internet-connected lights and appliances for the home control aspect to work, but it’s a big step in Australia embracing the connected home.
With the Australian language selected, Home speaks with a local Aussie twang. It sounds just like Google Assistant.
At a demonstration of the product to The Australian in Sydney, Google product manager Raunaq Shah said Home had been configured to better understand Australian accents, and understands local slang such as “brekkie” and “servo”.
“We have imbued the entire Google Home experience with an Australian flavour,” he said.
Whether it really understands all modern Australian vernacular or just a few chosen phrases is something we will eagerly test.
You address Home by starting a command with “OK Google” or “Hey Google”. Say “OK, Google, what do Kookaburras sound like,” and it will oblige. It supposedly has some smart responses to phrases such as “Let’s throw a shrimp on the barbie”, but this is yet to work on my test unit.
While there’s a smattering of Aussie novelties, a coding framework that lets developers add powerful applications to extend Home’s capability is not yet available in Australia. So you can’t yet ask Google Home to link you to the Uber personal assistant (a bot service) that then takes you through ordering an Uber by voice, or to the Domino Pizza’s assistant Dru so that you can order pizza by voice.
Mr Shah says that functionality, known as The Actions on Google Platform, will come soon. Google didn’t say when, but around August 21 has been rumoured as possible.
But you will immediately be able to configure Home to play Australian news items from launch. You do it in two ways: you either compile a bulletin of your chosen news sources in the Google Home app, or explicitly ask Home for that news segment.
News from The Australian, The Australian Tech News, Fox Sports, the ABC, Huffington Post, TechCrunch and Sky News are due to debut at launch.
You can stream audio from an Android phone or iPhone to Google Home over Wi-Fi as well as play music from YouTube Music, Google Play Music, and Spotify, or ask Home to play a variety of radio stations through TuneIn Radio — Eg. “OK Google, Play JJJ on Tune-In radio”..
Google is offering six months free YouTube Red for new users.
Currently you won’t be able to shop or make payments with Google Home in Australia.
Google tells us it is making a big effort to include local sport in Google Home, but it’s not there yet.
But Home now can give you live results from international cricket, international soccer and latest news and match scores from AFL through a recent deal with Telstra.
Other sports are still to come. “We’re working on bringing a host of other sports to the platform,” says Shah.
One of its neatest tricks is integration with the Google Chromecast dongle on a TV. You can ask Home to play a movie or TV series from Netflix and Stan, or a video on YouTube, and it magically appears on your TV — provided you have the Chromecast dongle set as your TV input device.
Home is the first personal assistant brought to Australia by the major tech companies. Apple’s personal assistant HomePod is due to launch in December while Amazon Echo is due here sometime. Amazon is yet to say when.
Google has tackled the issue of privacy at home by not divulging some information unless it verifies your voice.
While it will happily tell anyone what the weather is, it has to recognise your voice before it will divulge the contents of your emails and appointments. Google says Home can register up to 6 different people and distinguish your voice from your housemates. It did exactly that at the demonstration.
We don’t know how robust this is. Whether Home can be tricked into divulging someone’s calendar information by using a recording of their voice is something we’ll need to test. Security will become vital when and if you can make payments from Home.
The challenge for Google Home in Australia will be linking in local services, like the traffic, local restaurants, and Australian businesses such as Uber, and Domino’s Pizza — and getting it right.
You’ll feel miffed if Google Home sends you down the road when you ask for the nearest Pizza store when there’s one across the road.