Google (GOOG, GOOGL) is determined to take the smart assistant crown from Amazon’s Alexa and Echo, and to do that it rolled out a number of new features for its own Google Assistant on Tuesday at its I/O developers conference.
With new smart displays designed to take on Amazon’s Echo Show and the addition of 6 new voices, it’s clear Google wants to be the only smart assistant you use.
Assistant can now make phone calls
The standout Assistant update Google announced was the ability for the assistant to make phone calls to schedule appointments for things like haircuts and doctors appointments. We’re not talking about using Assistant to call your mom, either.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai showed off two demos in which Google Assistant successfully conducted an entire phone conversation.
In one demo, Google Assistant called a salon receptionist to book a specific service, as well as schedule a date and time for the service. Once your reservation or appointment is booked, Google says Assistant will add a calendar reminder for your appointment and allow you to cancel if needed.
According to Google, the Assistant can understand complex sentences, fast speech and long remarks, so it can respond naturally during a phone conversation. The new feature, which is rolling out as an experiment in the coming weeks, is powered by Google Duplex, which combines Google’s learnings in areas such as deep learning and machine learning. If it works as advertised, the feature far surpasses what Amazon Alexa is currently capable of.
While Alexa can start up a phone call for you, as well as order you items off Amazon.com, Amazon’s (AMZN) popular assistant is incapable of holding phone conversations and scheduling appointments as Google Assistant will be in the weeks to come.
In addition to the ability to make phone calls for you, Google said its Assistant will soon be able to perform multiple actions at once. The feature will allow you to do things like ask Assistant “What’s the weather in New York and Dallas?” and provide you with the weather forecast for both regions. Similarly, you can ask the Assistant to turn on your television to a specific channel and switch on your smart popcorn or coffee maker.
Amazon’s Alexa allows you to create routines, but those routines are fired off by saying a key phrase like “Goodnight.” You also have to program your routines to properly reply to your specific phrase.
Google’s Assistant, on the other hand, will let you make these multi-step requests in real time, which could be seriously helpful if you’ve got multiple devices you want to use at once.
More natural conversations
Google also announced it is working to make talking with Assistant more natural. Not only is it adding six new voices to the digital assistant, including John Legend in certain situations, it will also allow you to continue making requests without having to constantly repeat “Hey, Google.” The idea is for you to be able to ask multiple questions just as you would with an actual human in real life.
Ah, but Alexa already has such a feature. In fact, Amazon rolled out the ability, called Follow-up Mode, in March and allows you to ask a follow-up question up to five seconds after your first request. Google didn’t say how long its natural conversation feature will listen for follow-up questions.
Beyond improved conversation, Google said it is trying to help ensure that kids who use Assistant don’t lose their manners by demanding it perform tasks for them. To that end, the company is introducing the ability to have Assistant respond positively when a user says the word “please.” So if your child says “Okay, Google, please turn on the lights,” it will reply with positive feedback, telling your kid how polite he or she is.
But again, Google isn’t the first to come up with this feature. Amazon recently announced its Echo Dot Kids Edition, which also responds to polite requests with positive feedback.
Finally, Google announced its new smart displays will begin shipping in July. Coming from manufacturers like JBL and Lenovo, Google’s smart display are a direct response to Amazon’s own Echo Show. Lenovo’s smart display will be available with an 8-inch display for $199 and a 10-inch display for $229. Amazon’s Echo Show is $159 and has a 7-inch screen.
What really sets Google’s smart display apart from Amazon’s Echo Show is that Google’s offerings can play YouTube videos. The Echo Show was originally able to access YouTube, but Google pulled the app as part of its tit-for-tat bickering over how the companies sell or host each other’s products.
YouTube alone could be reason enough for someone to choose one of Google’s smart displays over the Echo Show. Amazon will have to do something to make the Show more appealing or it might just lose out on this segment of the digital assistant market.