Happy AI holidays. If you’re the recent recipient of hardware with Google Assistant inside — like a Google Nest smart speaker or smart display — here’s a guide to getting the most out of it.
Done right, Google Assistant can help you cook, shop, learn, remember things, stay in touch with loved ones, and interpret dozens of languages, not to mention acting as a remote control for your TV.
Let’s call this your suite of standard issue features. These are the reason smart speakers became popular in the first place and are the kinds of actions the average user is most likely to do — like setting a timer or alarm, controlling smart home devices, playing music, and creating calendar events.
Once you’ve downloaded the Home app, follow the instructions to do things like integrate your favorite music streaming service or enable voice control of smart home devices.
You’ll also want to set up Voice Match if you have multiple people in your home and want to do things like ask what’s on your personal calendar or add an event to your calendar. Voice Match works for up to six members of a household.
Some things you can do with your smart speaker or display:
- Create lists or dictate a note for up to 30 seconds
- Get directions
- Make phone calls
- Find your phone
- Find nearby businesses
- Remember important information, like a family member’s birthday.
- Search Google Assistant voice apps for things like trivia games or DIY tips
- Search podcasts by topic
- Follow your stock portfolio
Notice I gave no directions on how to do any of this? That’s because the AI Google Assistant uses is designed to understand how people talk and adjust to variations of commands. Unlike every other form of computing, when done right the conversational interface should require no training. So ask away.
Assign a reminder
This is pretty basic too, but if you share your home and work address with Google in the Home app, you can create location-based reminders that pop up on your phone or cue a sound when you walk in the door.
In August, Google Assistant got the ability to assign reminders to up to six members of a household. Assigned reminders first appear on the person’s smartphone and can also be location-based or be scheduled to take place at a certain time or date.
When you assign reminders with the Nest Hub Max, a smart display with facial recognition released this fall, reminders appear on the screen when it sees your face as you approach the device. If you can stomach giving Google facial recognition that recognizes your family, this can be pretty helpful around the house.
Pick a voice
Gone are the days of a single female assistant with a monotone voice. Today, most AI assistants are more expressive than they were a few years ago, and with the exception of Amazon’s Alexa, all major AI assistants now offer feminine and masculine assistant options. Google Assistant gives you up to 11 different voices to choose from.
Text-to-speech synthesis also means you can have Google Assistant respond to queries with the voice of John Legend or Insecure‘s Issa Rae. Amazon’s Alexa can also talk like Samuel L. Jackson. It seems likely that tech giants making AI assistants will incorporate more celebrity personality options for voice computing in 2020.
To be clear, AI that sounds like celebrity voices is not for every exchange, but it does work for responses to common requests like “What’s the weather like?” or “Tell me a joke.”
Ask a question
Once you’ve chosen your favorite voice, you can ask Google Assistant factual questions about almost anything, from “Who was the 36th president of the United States?” to “Where is the nearest Best Buy?”
You’re speaking to the right AI for your random questions: For the second year in a row, Google Assistant ranks #1 among virtual assistants in an annual IQ test that gauges their ability to accurately respond to questions. Though other assistants are catching up, Google Assistant outranks the competition in virtually every category, including local search and commerce questions.
Another analysis this summer found that Google Assistant ranks best among AI assistants in answering questions about the most commonly used medications in the United States.
If you have a smart display, the response to questions may also include visuals. And ask an animal-related question, like “What does a whale sound like?” and you might hear the sound. Or ask about a local business and directions may be sent directly to your phone.
Stuff for kids
If you’ve ever seen kids interact with a smart speaker, you probably understand that many children get a real kick out of controlling AI assistants, and Google Assistant has made a growing list of things for kids to do since the first Home speaker became available in 2016.
There are alarms with Ninja Turtles, Lego, or Nickelodeon characters that can tell jokes or share words of encouragement. There are also Google Assistant voice apps for kids from characters like SpongeBob SquarePants.
Google Nest speakers and displays can listen to you read a book, and when you arrive at certain sections, words will cue sound effects. My Storytime even lets parents record stories for their kids to listen to at their leisure through a Google Assistant voice app.
Kids under 13 can make their own Voice Match profile that lets Google Assistant recognize their voice with a parent’s permission.
Asking questions can be fun, but what about the follow-up? Continued Conversations allows Google Assistant to listen for about 10 seconds after an initial exchange for a follow-up question. Ask “What’s the capital of California” and then “And how many people live there?” and Google Assistant will understand the context.
This is designed to make exchanges feel more fluid and human and less like you’re speaking to a basic bot.
With your permission, Google Assistant is able to act as a translator for up to 44 languages. Interpreter Mode for Home speakers launched in January for about two dozen languages It’s not a perfect solution, as translations were limited to about 15 seconds at launch, but it can still be helpful in the right context.
Interpreter Mode also recently came to Google Assistant on Android devices.
If you speak more than one language at home, you can enable multilingual Google Assistant in the Home app. That means Google Assistant can speak and respond to queries in both English and Spanish.
Search your photos and YouTube
This can be a lot of fun and a great way to explore your own photos or watch video. Try “Hey Google, show me my photos from last weekend” or “Hey Google, show me my photos from Portland.”
You can also say “Hey Google, play the Warriors Game on YouTube TV” or “Hey Google, show me cats tap dancing on YouTube.” To avoid untoward video recommendations, responses can be limited to YouTube Restricted Mode or YouTube Kids.
It’s important to note that you don’t need a smart display to do this: A Home speaker can also work in tandem with a Chromecast connected to your TV to display photos based on voice commands. And depending on the brand and model, Google Assistant can also act as a remote control for your TV or Roku device to let you turn the device on or off, change the channel, or ask for certain shows.
Cook a meal
Google Assistant incorporates thousands of recipes from the web, and Home speakers can help with step-by-step guides to cooking a recipe. You can also check with Google Assistant on the basic cooking stuff, like how much 500ml is in ounces, or set timers to make sure your casserole doesn’t burn.
Cooking with Google Assistant works best when you can see the recipe and scroll through instructions, rather than waiting for a speaker to talk you through each step or having the assistant repeat steps when you get behind, get distracted, or go looking for an ingredient.
Smart display users can swipe to the left to see recipe recommendations. Favorite recipes can also be saved in the Google app.
Broadcast a message
When you tell Google Assistant to broadcast a message, it quickly sends an audio snippet to other devices in a home so you can tell everyone it’s time for dinner or bed.
Broadcast replies were introduced to enable broadcasts to be interactive even if you’re away from home.
This feature naturally encourages people to own more than one speaker, because broadcasting a message to someone doesn’t make much sense if you’re both in the same room.
Voice commands for privacy
This year saw a slow drip of privacy-related incidents from AI assistants made by tech giants like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. Most of these stories involved third-party contractors hearing wildly intimate audio from users who were unaware that humans were reviewing recorded interactions with their AI assistant.
In response, Amazon and Google introduced privacy-focused voice commands that enable you to quickly say things like “Hey Google, delete the last thing I said” or “Hey Google, delete everything I said to you last week.”
Google makes it possible to delete voice recordings in the My Activity section of the Home app, but voice commands make it even easier and don’t require digging through your account.
Downtime with Digital Wellbeing
Google also introduced Digital Wellbeing, a suite of services to monitor and limit tech usage.
With Google Assistant, this feature lets you disable music or video or limit Google Assistant responses based on the time of day. This can be good in households where kids get chatty with the assistant when it’s time for bed.
One major item on my wish list: Enable restrictions based on unique voice ID, so parents can lock out their chatty children but still have a full range of movement with a voice computing device, for example.
You can also disable voice or video calls and interactions with third-party Google Assistant voice apps.
Routines are voice commands you can customize to carry out multiple actions with a single utterance. For instance, you can make “Okay Google, good morning” a cue for the assistant to read the news, take your phone off silent, change the temperature in your home, tell you about your commute, and start your coffee maker. Or you can make a Routine that shuts off smart home appliances when you leave home or turns them on when you return from work.
The one I use most often is “Good morning” to check my calendar and hear the latest news.
Routines can even incorporate Google Assistant voice apps like Headspace for things like word of the day or meditation or wind down breathing exercises. If you follow a certain religion, routines might be good for daily devotionals, or to get things like a quote of the day or word of the day.
Companies like Google and Amazon offer Routines because they know voice commands that become part of your daily life are likely to see the highest levels of engagement. Daily Routines are one of Google Assistant VP Scott Huffman’s 5 must-follow rules of voice computing.