New York – The Google Home personal assistant, a voice-activated speaker powered by Google Assistant, arrived in stores in November with some neat tricks for travelers: the ability to suggest nearby restaurants, translate foreign words, convert currency, track flight status and answer fact-based queries such as, “How much does Global Entry cost?”
Roughly six months later, it’s doing things it couldn’t before, like tracking flight prices, giving directions and providing same-day updates on traffic to airports.
Anyone vaguely familiar with other personal virtual assistants, like Alexa from Amazon or Siri from Apple, knows that this technology is a work in progress. But I was impressed with how far Google Assistant and Google Home have come in a short period, and it’s not difficult to see them becoming a larger part of travelers’ lives in the near future.
The Google Assistant lives not only within the Google Home speaker, but also on Android phones and smartwatches and recently became available on iPhones.
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It is capable of a wide range of tasks beyond answering users’ questions. You can use your voice to control your home’s thermostat, play shows and movies on your television or play music throughout your house.
The first and most important thing to know about Google Home is that while it speaks several human languages, it also has a language of its own.
Google recommends starting each interaction with “O.K., Google” (“Hey, Google” works as well), which will prompt the speaker into receiving a query properly. It will light up and flash its signals when it’s ready.
Patience is also crucial. If at first you don’t succeed, it may not be because of what you’re asking, but because of how you’re asking it. For example:
Human: “O.K., Google, when does flight 3459 from Delta Air Lines arrive at La Guardia Airport?”
Google Home: “Sorry, I’m not sure how to help. But my team’s helping me learn.”
Human: “O.K., Google, when does Delta Air Lines flight 3459 arrive at La Guardia Airport?”
Google Home: “Delta 3459 from Pittsburgh to New York City is delayed and arrives in 32 minutes.”
Preparing a Trip
I found this stage of my mock journey the most helpful and practical. Whether you need help deciding where to go or when to go there, Google Home has ideas.
One of the neater tricks is asking it about what time of year is best to visit a city.
Human: “O.K., Google, when is the best time to visit London?”
Google Home: “According to Visit London, autumn is a lovely time to visit London, as the weather is mild (11 to 15 degrees Celsius)” — 52 to 59 Fahrenheit — “and you can enjoy a variety of annual events, from Total Thames Festival to Halloween celebrations. To read more, look for the link in your Google Home App.”
On my iPhone’s Google Home app, there was a link to a visitlondon.com page with more details.
What I found to be the most useful feature was the finding and tracking of flights, which harnesses the power of Google Flights. This aspect gives Google Assistant an edge over its competition (Alexa has some flight-tracking and -pricing features powered by Kayak, but not as many).
Just ask it how much flights are to the city of your choice and give it your dates, and you’ll get the current price and be asked if you want email updates when the price changes.
Human: “OK Google, how much are flights to Toronto?”
Google Home: “Round trip flights from New York City to Toronto leaving in two weeks start at $181. Do you have any dates in mind?”
Human: “May 12th to May 15th.”
Google Home: “Round trip flights from New York City to Toronto leaving May 12th and coming back on May 15th start at $215. I can keep track of the cheapest flights for those dates. Would you like to receive emails with updates?”
Human: “Yes, please.”
Google Home: “Alright, you’ll receive an email if the price changes.”
I did get an email a few days later letting me know that cheapest flight was now $262.\
An Evolving Sense of Direction
While you’re finishing packing, looking for your passport and checking (twice) to make sure the burners are off, you can get a quick update on how long it might take to get to the airport.
Human: “OK Google, how long will it take to get to LaGuardia airport?”
Google: “With light traffic, it will take 8 minutes to drive to LaGuardia airport.”
This sense of direction is not something Google Home had when it first came out, an example of its evolving capabilities. Before long you will also be able to book a car to the airport via voice, as the company says hands-free calls will be an option in the coming months.
But when asking the assistant for directions, you do not yet get the detail you would if you were searching on Google Maps. When I asked Google Home how to get to La Guardia, it gave me only a general idea: “via 77th Street and Grand Central Parkway.”
Similarly, if you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B once you’re in your destination city, Google Assistant gives you basic information, but it defaults to car directions, so you must specify how you want to get there.
Human: “O.K. Google, how do I get from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto to the CN Tower in Toronto?”
Google Home: “Alright. The best way to get from Hockey Hall of Fame to CN Tower by car is via Front Street W and will take about 6 minutes in heavy traffic.“
Human: “O.K. Google, how do I get from the Hockey Hall of Fame to the CN Tower by public transport?”
Google Home: “From Young Street and Front Street West take 121 towards west, 121 departing in 5 minutes.”
Google will also give you the hours of operation if you ask, but cannot tell you what a ticket costs.
At lunchtime, you’re better off asking a local for recommendations or searching Google Maps the old fashioned way (on your smartphone).
I asked Google where I could “find a good sandwich near the CN Tower in Toronto,” and was given three highly-rated restaurants, but Sorella Sausages and Good Bite Restaurant were both roughly five miles away from CN Tower.
The Bottom Line
This technology is still in its early stages, so unless you’re already using Google Home as part of your daily routine, chatting with it is more of a fun thing for travelers to experiment with than a replacement for what you would normally use to help plan a trip. But the foundation is strong and its potential is exciting, and, as Google Home will sometimes tell you when it’s stumped, it’s “learning more every day.”
The New York Times