I remember when I first saw the Amazon Echo. My first thought was, “Finally!! That is seriously cool!! But Amazon??”
Yep, it caught me off guard that Amazon was the one offering this kind of product. I read through the features and watched the videos. All those happy families who could have anything their hearts desired. All they had to do was say, “Hey Alexa, get me a billion dollars!” OK, that wouldn’t work (That doesn’t work right??), but that was the general idea.
I went right out and signed up for the early release program, and then I waited. When my time came up to buy the “pre-release” Echo, I chickened out. It was a great deal, and in retrospect, I totally should have done it, but I couldn’t silence the whispering voice in the back of my head, “Amazon? Really?”
Amazon just didn’t feel like the right company for this kind of a product to come from. Google did. They already had Google Now, and it seemed like that would easily translate into a stand alone Assistant for your home. I loved Google Now, but I was anxious for Google to come out with an actual Assistant. Google Now wasn’t really an assistant, it was a service.
It didn’t feel personal.
All the other versions of assistants had names. They were more like talking to a person. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Amy, even Hound. Saying OK Google made it feel like I was talking to a machine, and the name Google sometimes doesn’t roll off the tongue particularly well.
I felt like it was only a matter of time before Google came out with an assistant like the Echo, so I waited. I waited for much longer than I expected I would have to, but finally the news broke a few weeks ago that Google was going to be announcing their own Echo like assistant at I/O 2016.
When I/O came around, I fired up the Google Cardboard and watched the keynote in VR. I was beyond excited to hear about this new assistant! When the time finally came, I waited with bated breath as Sundar Pichai finally made the announcement. Google Now was being upgraded to…. (What name are they going to give it? Please let it not suck!)…… Google Assistant.
My first thought was that they weren’t going to release the name right away. Maybe they were holding it back for a later announcement or event? That couldn’t be it, right?
I watched the rest of the keynote with a furrowed brow. There didn’t seem to be any forthcoming announcement regarding the name. I came across an article a while later that had in it an interview with Jonathan Jarvis. Jarvis is a former creative director on Google’s Labs team. While he was at Google, he led a team doing concept, strategy, and design on products like search, and worked on Assistant only up until February before departing the company to join Human Ventures. He said Google had spent quite a while talking about whether or not it should personify its digital assistant.
“We always wanted to make it feel like you were the agent, and it was more like a superpower that you had and a tool that you used. If you create this personified assistant, that feels like a different relationship.”
Business Insider also reported, “We also heard while at I/O that Google didn’t want to give its assistant a gender or make it seem too American.”
OK, I get that. That kind of makes sense, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that Google had gone the wrong direction.
I don’t want to feel like I have a superpower, I want to feel like someone is taking care of it for me. I understand that once you choose a voice, you have an accent. You’ve determined that it’s male or female, American or not. If you don’t want to make those choices, don’t make those choices. There’s another way to do that without making an assistant that’s void of personality.
Make it configurable. Super configurable. Let the user choose the name. Let the user choose the voice. Let the user choose the nationality and the personality.
I recently read Ready Player One. I don’t want to get all spoilery regarding the story, but the hero of the story (Wade) has a virtual personal assistant. His virtual personal assistant looked and acted like Max Headroom. In the story, he’d tried having his personal assistant be Erin Gray “of Buck Rogers and Silver Spoons fame”, but he found her to be “too distracting”. Wade even threatens to replace Max with Majel Barrett if he doesn’t stop bothering him. Virtual personal assistants were configurable in every aspect.
This is what I want. I don’t want my “personal assistant” to be so void of personality that it feels like I’m talking to a machine. I want to choose who I’m going to talk to. I want to talk to Hal, or Darth Vader, or Max Headroom, or Erin Gray, or Majel Barrett, or even Siri for Pete’s sake!
What’s mind boggling is that this isn’t a new idea! We’ve had GPS systems touting celebrity voices for years! One of these systems is even Waze, which GOOGLE OWNS!!
I don’t know. Google Home does look cool. I’ll probably end up with one or more in my house (depending on cost), but I can’t help but feel disappointed in Google’s decision to try to make their assistant a blank slate. What do you think? Am I completely off base on this, or do you think Google made a mistake here?