Projects and Updates, 2018-07-01

Projects and Updates, 2018-07-01

Here's the thing with testing voice interfaces... you sound like you're losing your mind while you're doing it:
"Computer, where's my train?
Computer, where's MYYyyyy train?
Computer, where's mahtrain?
Computer, WHERE'Smahtrain?

Voice interfaces and my Alexa skill
Previously on CKDSN: I made an Alexa Skill that tells me when my train is arriving at the station.

Originally, "Where's my train" seemed like a can't-fail option for launching my Alexa skill, since I'm the only user. However, as I've gotten more cavalier when launching the skill, I've started getting some confused responses from Alexa.

  • She often thinks I'm saying "Where's my trade?"
  • For a while she was asking, So you want to listen to music by Train, right?
  • Recently she's been giving me a news report about train delays in Paris.

I'm starting to appreciate the grand difficulty of testing voice interfaces. I talk to Alexa in the shower, with a shirt covering my face, while walking through three different rooms that each have their own device... and I sort of expect Alexa to understand me, no matter what. On the one hand, that's pretty unreasonable. On the other hand, she mostly understands me, no matter what.[1]

That said, an huge growth opportunity for both Alexa and Google's Nameless Assistant Thing is context. I have an Echo Dot dedicated to my train finding skill. It's literally the only thing I ever ask it to do, and I do it every weekday morning. If I had a human dedicated to the same task and they misheard me, (Hey Alex... play some Train,) that human would know I absolutely do not want to hear songs by Train.[2]

I think the biggest context fail for both systems, only because it seems like low hanging fruit, is not using environmental clues to set their voice's volume. If I whisper "Hey Google" or "Hey Alexa", and there's dead silence in the background, that's a great opportunity for the machines to also respond at a reduced volume. (Instead of the volume I was using to blast Lady Gaga, hours prior.)

Flutter is useful and easy
Previously on CKDSN: I'm using Flutter to code my event planning app.

I installed Flutter and it was really easy![3] Installing Flutter was so easy, I jumped right into learning Flutter. And learning Flutter was so easy, I jumped right into coding my event planning app.

My current goal is to get a minimal version of the software running on my phone, as soon as I can. A) It'll help me track events and invites. B) Once I'm using it, I'll have a better idea of what data I actually want front-and-center.

I'll have more thoughts on Flutter and the app, later. (I occasionally drop updates into my Instagram story: @CKDSN.)

A comparison of two tiny speakers
Here are some assorted thoughts on my experience with Google's Home Mini and Amazon's Echo Dot[4], both of which I have littered throughout my home.

Too Long; Don't Wanna Read
Wait to buy. (Skip to next section)

Can you get its attention?

  • Alexa: Yes
  • Google: Flip a coin

I've previously declared "Okay Google!" a terrible wake phrase and I will stand by that for the foreseeable future.

"Hey Google!" is better; I still don't like it.

After 6 months with Google Home Mini, I still can't get a constant response with the wake phrase. I ran an unscientific experiment counting how many times the Minis ignored my "Hey Google!"s over the course of a week: 34 attempts to wake the Mini with 22 successes, 12 failures.

While that's approximately 66% success and 33% failure, that ratio doesn't capture the true frustration of talking to Google's Nameless Assistant Thing. Observe:

  • 7 pm: Hey Google! works (+1 Success)
  • 8 pm: Hey Google! doesn't work... (+1 Failure) I still need what I need, though, so I try again. (+1 Success)

That example represents a 66%-to-33% split, but the latter two attempts are part of the same (frustrating) encounter.

50/50 is a better ratio... 50% of my encounters require multiple attempts to wake the Google Home Mini, which means 50% of my interactions with my Minis are lowkey irritating. (That's probably the main reason I don't talk to my Minis all that often.[5][6])

Does it sound good?

  • Amazon Dot: Not great, but there's an Aux Out port
  • Google Mini: Decent, but where's the Aux Out port??

The main reason I have Google and Amazon's surveillance tools scattered around my home is so I can listen to synchronized music as I walk around. Neither solution is perfect.

Strictly speaking, Google's Mini sounds better than Amazon's Dot.

However, my bookshelf speakers sound better than both.

To Amazon's credit, the Echo Dot has a 3.5 mm Aux Out port. To Google's huge discredit, the Home Mini does not.

How's the multi-room music?

  • Amazon speakers: Fine, when it works
  • Google Mini: Fine, except for the lack of an Aux Out port

Occasionally, one of Amazon's speakers, at random, will stop playing music during multi-room playback. The device will still be online and able to control the music... it just doesn't actually play the music. I never found a great way to fix it when it happened.

Related: To both Amazon and Google's discredit, I've found no way to seamlessly transfer music from one room to another.[7]

Which one is smarter?

  • Google...
  • but Alexa might be catching up

When I was taking notes for this update earlier in the quarter, Alexa missed on two questions that Google nailed:

  • When asked When does Mall of America open?, Alexa returned a result for Mall of America Field at the Metrodome, which hasn't existed for 4 years.
  • When asked about the wind speed, Alexa would just return generic weather info (which didn't include wind speed).

As of today, 2018-06-19, Alexa correctly answers both questions.

While I expect Google to retain a slight advantage in answering questions (and for Amazon to retain an advantage in selling you stuff), I'd guess, soon enough, both will be smart enough for what you need.


In general, my basic usage pattern is:

  • I hate talking to Google's Nameless Assistant Thing, so I avoid it when I can.
  • Alexa does the basic stuff I need: lights, alarms, weather.
  • My Google Minis play most of my multi-room music, but I use a tablet to control the music (vs. actually talking to the devices).

A rhetorical question I often find myself asking people, brands, product makers, etc. is: Congratulations -- you won! what?

It's a question that comes to mind, often, when I'm using Amazon and Google's tiny smart speakers. In theory, both companies wanted consumers to buy these speakers and put them throughout their homes: Congrats! You got me!

Now that I'm here, it seems like they weren't ready for me. The companies priced and sized their products for placement throughout the home, but the products don't actually work all that well together. For example:

  • Music doesn't easily transfer from one room to the next.
  • Alarms are device specific... they can't be set or dismissed remotely.
  • The Google Home Mini doesn't have an Aux Out port; if they're small enough to put everywhere, there's a good chance many consumers are putting one in a room that already has speakers.
  • Neither product has stellar to-do list functionality.
  • Neither product offers decent dictation or voice note functionality. (This seems like a no-brainer if I always have a hot mic within speaking distance.)

In theory, most of these things can be adjusted via software updates. And, in theory, these things can be overlooked. But why should consumers do that? The ads sell a vision of the future that doesn't come with an asterisk: "Make Google Do It (*but not everything there are some things you'll have to overlook.)"

My general feeling is that neither company has a smart speaker, yet, that actually delivers on its value proposition, despite the slickness of the product or marketing.

They're sort of cool, but they haven't earned your money. Wait to buy either.

Still under construction...
I've been making some style sheet changes to the website. You may see fonts update, spacing shift, etc. (Hopefully nothing breaks.)

Up Next

  • Summer/Hang/Tennis
  • Get a version of my event planning software on my phone so I can start using it

  1. My own skill aside. ↩︎

  2. Another human trick: we know when we didn't hear something clearly, which can help us determine if we should trust what we think we heard. ↩︎

  3. Especially the second time I did it - I soft-bricked my laptop and had to reinstall Linux. ↩︎

  4. And, technically, one Echo Plus. When I'm talking about the Dot, specifically, I'll say so. ↩︎

  5. The 34 attempts above represent a conscious effort to use the Minis to collect data. My true "Hey Google!" usage is much lower. ↩︎

  6. Also, for what it's worth: I didn't specifically count my Alexa attempts. However, I know I used Alexa at least twice as much in the same time span and I had, at most, five failed attempts to get her attention. ↩︎

  7. i.e. I started in the kitchen and now I'm on the move... can I shift the music from the kitchen to the bathroom? Or, from the kitchen to multi-room?? Ans: No. Stop the music and start all over. ↩︎