I’ve been lucky enough to receive an Amazon Echo as a present in its early-ish days and it has been the absolute trigger that got me hooked on the smart home. Despite hearing around 2,5 jokes per day (“Alexa, fetch me a sandwich”, “Alexa, is this the final proof you have no soul and are actually a robot?”) — I nevertheless decided to embrace it and become its outspoken advocate. Alexa became my buddy — we even had a whole week when we wished each other good night — but like any relationship ones rushes into, the cracks began showing pretty soon. Using it in Romania was limitative enough, but having to yell the same basic thing 3 times in a row in order for it to get me started to make me more and more distant.
And then, wanting to see what else is out there, I tested one of my friends’ Google Home and was absolutely amazed at the level of accuracy it gives its answers. So, for a few weeks now, I’ve been keeping a new Google Home in its box, kind of scared of all the permissions and access I have to give it for it to work properly (basically, to my whole life).
I’ve finally built the courage to set it up and the difference, feature wise, is colossal — it immediately told me (based on my home address saved in my Google account) the schedule for the nearest pharmacy and when it’s the best time to go to my favorite cafe.
So, after experiencing both the Echo and the Google Home, and trying to live with both, I thought I’d give my short observations in the two areas I’m comfortable in: Branding and Millennialism.
(–) It’s tough to differentiate home assistants beyond their features. They all have more or less the same hardware design that’s prevalent in the smart home world — little black or white boxes or cylinders. Moreover, adding a logo on it won’t help much, as it won’t be visible in the home environment (e.g. Amazon Echo). It does somehow help that Google Home offers pretty color options.
(–) The naming job seems chaotic and doesn’t support differentiation either — sure, it helps when it’s a Google endorsed product, but “Home” sounds pretty damn generic. As for the Echo, it’s unclear which is the brand name they’re putting their money in — is it Echo or Alexa?
(+) Speaking of Alexa, it appears to have been immensely important for easy adoption to personalize the assistant using a human name. It sounds more natural when shouting it from across the hall, it fits perfectly in funny news headlines and it’s something familiar to hang on to (well, except when your name is Alexa, too, and it becomes highly confusing to figure out who the other person is talking to — you or the assistant? grrr.)
Yelling “hey google”? It’s just a constant reminder of who I’m giving all my data to. It does help in underlying the parent brand though, as impersonal as it is.
(–) While the main touchpoint is the voice, this doesn’t support differentiation either. Calm, female, vaguely robotic voices… they all sound pretty much the same. Since I’m using the Echo and the Google Home at the same time, I had to set them to a female voice, respectively a male one, so that it’s easier to figure out who I’m talking to. Since I already have the man and the woman in the house — DOES THAT MAKE ME IRRELEVANT?!
(++) Their interface lights, up until now, are the best brand property they managed to build — blue circle for Echo and flickering dots for Google Home. Easiest way to tell them apart for a rookie.
As features will evolve and a certain focus will clearly help in making a choice (e.g. shopping vs. connectivity with one’s online universe) — it will be more and more challenging to separate the features from the brand and make the latter sedimented once the device is in the customer’s home.
(+) It’s pretty easy to replace a human presence with the home assistant’s one — at least for a while. There’s always something fun they have to say; always a moment when you have to annoyingly yell at it; and also the time when you feel bad you treat your robot so horribly and almost feel like apologizing. As technology will evolve, so will their ability to “replace” human interaction. We will never have to leave the house again, high five!
(–) Our privacy anxiety reaches skyrocket limits the moment Google casually informs us about all the things it’s going to have access to. As if every other thing they store wasn’t enough, now there’s an always-on microphone in our homes, that we willingly let analyize our behavior in the limited amount of time we’re not using any other connected device.
(+) They’re still new and exciting enough to be an active part of a gathering with friends. I’ve had evenings when everything that happened had the home assistant at its centre — either making Alexa play silly songs, making the Google Home host a game or hopelessly trying to make them “talk” to each other.
(+) I’ve also made important decisions based on the random answer Alexa gave me to almost existential questions. I’ve build some kind of superstition — the AI should know me better than I know myself by now, so why not randomly let it decide for me? Yey, millennials, no more responsibility!
Home assistants complement our already tech-inflicted lives, encouraging, little by little, to build fictional “relationships” with an AI. While it’s far from it being a threat, it sure is exciting and worrying at the same time.