"OK, Google" is a tongue-twister

We're a few months into having both a Google Home air freshener and an Amazon Echo hockey puck, and it's been interesting to see which one of the two we seem to chat to most.

As it stands, Alexa is our most popular artificial friend. Not because the service is better, but simply because "Alexa" is easier to say than "OK, Google".  I know Google is probably better. On the occasions I've tried more complex questions on both devices, Google's years of natural language and search algorithms expertise shine through over Amazon's, but I just cannot get used to saying that awful mouthful of a trigger phrase. 

I've been wondering what it is about the trigger phrases that make one easier to say other another. When I even think about saying "OK, Google", my tongue feels strained - the clash of that K next to those two G sounds. I suspected it might qualify as a tongue twister, so I asked a linguist friend what she thought.

She explained to me that linguists would describe the K and the G sounds as "minimally different", in that they share most of the same properties. They come from the same position in the mouth, making them hard to say in succession, much like the tongue-twisters described in this article "Why tongue-twisters are hard to say". "OK, Google" is hard to say in the same way that "She sells sea-shells" is difficult.

I wasn't imagining things - "OK Google" is simply much harder to say than "Alexa". Performing lingual gymnastics every time we want to turn on a light just isn't going to fly.

I noticed while watching some of the Google I/O coverage that many of the presenters talking on the topic of the Google Home/Assistant were in fact saying "Hey, Google" instead of "OK, Google". I assume because "Hey" sounds more natural and also it's easier to say. I know most of the I/O stage-talks are heavily scripted and show pre-recorded Assistant conversations rather than live interactions, but I just shouted "Hey, Google" and our Google Home does respond to that (in fact, it responded every time I played the video I linked to). The alteration in the phrase is not a documented customisation, rather they're making the "OK Google" phrasing a little more forgiving in certain cases. 

Not all words are going to be easy for all people to say - some sounds are impossible for some people to make, depending on which language you learned in your youngest years, or due to speech impediment.  Sometimes it's even more banal - I wanted to use the Amazon trigger-word "Computer", since with my British accent I imagined Picarding it up around the house, but sadly it only understood me when I feigned a terrible American accent. Disappointing.

It seems right that customisation in this area is the way to go if these voice-activated systems are going to be equally accessible, but Google currently offers no official way to change their trigger phrase. Amazon allows a choice of 3 trigger words, each different sounding from the other - Echo, Alexa and Computer. Just this small selection opens up the opportunity to find a verbal trigger word that is comfortable to say and easy to remember, not just for one user in the home but for a whole family. It's not fully customisable, but it's a good start.

The story on the grapevine is that Google doesn't allow customisation of the trigger word because they don't want to personify and name their assistant - they don't want you naming your device after a person and then potentially treating it badly (the latter probably being a fair concern). You'll note that 2 of the 3 Amazon words are not what you'd typically consider person-names, so this excuse is a little weak and doesn't explain not offering a choice at all. Plus the Google Assistant literally already sounds like a human being, rather than a robot / synthesised voice, and you're encouraged to interact with it via normal human-to-human conversational patterns.

There are unofficial workarounds for android phone users (for google assistant), but they won't help you with the assistant on your Google Home. If you can't say "google" easily, or something that sounds remarkably similar, you're gonna have a frustrating time.

Voice controlling our entire homes could be really amazing, particularly for those with mobility or vision issues, but they're no good if they don't work for real people, their real voices and their real vocabularies. Google and company should do the hard work to make it simple for as many as possible and I hope that's the trend we'll see. 

Lowe's Iris motion and door sensors

I've been extending the motion-based lighting around the house, and needed a few new sensors for bathroom doors and the staircase. I spotted the Lowe's Iris devices on Amazon and noticed they were a bit cheaper than the SmartThings equivalents, so decided to give them ago.  

They basically work seamlessly with my SmartThings hub and they're a lot smaller.  They appear to be standard Zigbee compatible components, so you don't need to install their app or buy their hub to include them in your setup if you're already running a system that'll gladly except 3rd party devices. Pretty happy and I plan to pick up a few more. 

SmartThings Motion Sensor vs Lowe's Iris Motion Sensor

SmartThings Motion Sensor vs Lowe's Iris Motion Sensor

Discrete sized motion sensor

Discrete sized motion sensor

Door sensor attached

Door sensor attached

What I really want to set up is a night-light situation in the bathrooms, but I haven't come up wit a satisfactory way to do that, yet. Putting motion sensors in the bathroom seems creepy, and using door sensors isn't quite enough (Should lights be off if the door is open? For how long does it need to be open?). If anyone has a good configuration, I'd love to hear about it.

Piccorobo arduino biped

I picked up a little flat-pack robot arduino kit while I was in Tokyo. I couldn't find any instructions on how to put it together in English, but VStone does have a wiki with instructions that Google Translate got right enough to follow along.  It appears to be called a "PiccoRobo", and it was actually a piece of cake to assemble, even though I've never built anything with an arduino before.  It can walk backwards, forwards, make left and right turns and shake its head.

Robot parts

Robot parts

The Japanese instructions can be found on the wiki over here.  I skipped the first part and didn't bother testing the board and parts before assembling the robot.  A couple pro tips if you find yourself assembling a similar set.

  1. When you get to the calibration step, if, like me, you find one or two of the servos are totally at the wrong angle - rather than correcting it in the software, I actually unscrewed the part that was wrong (in my case, his left leg was a good 45° off) and reassembled it closer to 0° so there's only minor software corrections to make.
  2. Mark the ends of the cables of the servos as you go (with tape or a sharpie), so you'll remember which is which when you come to plug them into the board - I had to pull and hope I could see where the cable went - I still ended up swapping his left and right legs by mistake.
  3. The battery box shifts slightly from side to side as it walks, as it's not a snug fit between the two pieces of MDF inside, and can cause it to tip over. I recommend rectifying this by either using a bit of sticky tack or velcro tape to secure it in place - either way, you'll want to still be able to remove it to change the batteries down the line. I may even end up moving the battery pack to the robot's back as a counter weight when its head inevitably gets too heavy with electronics (fashioned into a jetpack, perhaps).

It's all up and running now. I'm going to pick up a wifi module and a couple inputs and outputs and see if I can't hook him up to the house next.

A short romance with Pebble

I picked up a Pebble Time Round cheap on Amazon after seeing a friend sporting one recently. Finally, a watch that's lady-wrist sized! It's pretty and e-paper! It's notifications work and they have adorable animations! It's developer friendly! I love this thing.

Pebble has built-in activity tracking that I'm syncing out to other systems like Google Fit and Fitbit

Pebble has built-in activity tracking that I'm syncing out to other systems like Google Fit and Fitbit

My GadgetWraps strap matches my keyboard. Swoon.

My GadgetWraps strap matches my keyboard. Swoon.

The evening it arrived, the rumours started that Fitbit had acquired Pebble and Pebble would be no more. Uh oh. Did I jump in too late?

So slim. This thing actually just looks like a regular watch.

So slim. This thing actually just looks like a regular watch.

Even with the backlight off, the e-paper displaying my minimal watch face is easy to read at a glance

Even with the backlight off, the e-paper displaying my minimal watch face is easy to read at a glance

Today, Pebble confirmed that the company did indeed get acquired, along with all of it's IP and some of the team.  Pebble is dissolving, and the hardware is no longer being manufactured.

Bummer.  At least I know why it was cheap now.

I'm not returning it. It's a nice device and it's not going to stop working overnight and really, what are the alternatives for a slim watch that doesn't look like you strapped a circa-1999 Nokia to your arm? The Time Round is arguably the only feature-rich wearable that appears to have not been exclusively designed for chunky white guys. 

There's an alternative operating system for the watches, called GadgetBridge, that I may have to look into but honestly, given that most hardware these days seems destined to return to the sand it was once formed from within a year or two, I didn't believe this was a forever deal anyway.


Braun Oral-B 3000 Bluetooth toothbrush

Getting a bluetooth toothbrush was never my intention.  A third Philips Sonicare died in our household in 18 months, so I felt it was time to give the competition a go and that's just what I ended up with for "free". Why Braun hasn't branded these models BlueToothBrushes is anyone's guess. My marketing consultancy rates are reasonable, FYI.

Let's be clear - the bluetooth aspect of this toothbrush is useless - but, like Gillette and the endless blades, they've got to innovate somewhere, right?

It's so overwhelmingly stupid that I can't really be bothered to write much about it.  The app only lets you set up one user, so if you're in a household that uses one handset with multiple heads - well, you're gonna get bonus fake brushing points.  It might have made sense if it was to encourage kids to brush their teeth, but the application is clinically boring.  To quote Dr Ian Malcolm, "Your Scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

It doesn't even tweet.

Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Generation

We're taking our first proper foray into the voice-activated side of home automation with the new Amazon Echo Dot 2nd Generation.  This is the first Dot you can order independently from the Amazon Echo - previously, you could only order a Dot via the original Echo device. This one also only cost me $50, instead of the $179 for the full Echo (I tried to get one of these on Amazon's big black friday sale thing - but their website crashed. Poor me.).

It's going to take a few weeks to really get a feel for it, but here's a couple of immediate reactions to the device after receiving and unboxing it yesterday.

It's tiny!  

This thing is literally palm size and about as thick as a stack of coasters.  Given the quality of the sound that comes out of it and how well Alexa picks up my voice - I'm really impressed with the hardware.

It's confusing to set up.  

The Alexa app already knew that I'd bought the device and gave no prompts on it as to where to go to get the wifi set up.  We had at least 2 minutes of Alexa loudly complaining that it didn't have an internet connection.  Software usability definitely feels like the weaker side.

Alexa is not totally comfortable with my British accent. 

I'll be back with more on Alexa after she's settled in a bit.