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Google Assistant’s worst feature is still having to say ‘Hey Google’

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Using the same launch phrase for all those devices is not only boring, but leads to problems

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Recently, a few of us at The Verge who use Google Assistant devices in our homes started complaining about the whole “Hey Google / OK Google” thing. We all had the same experience: you’d say something like, “Hey Google, set a timer for 12 minutes,” and the expected “Timer set” response would come from a device somewhere else in the house.

In my home, we have that problem all the time. We have three Google Assistant devices (not including our phones), and I can’t count how many times we’d be sitting in the living room, would say, “Hey Google, play The Great British Baking Show from Netflix,” and somewhere above my head, in the second floor bedroom, a voice would explain that it can’t do that.

What is the issue here? Apparently, the voice proximity technology, or arbitration, used by Google Assistant devices can be, to be polite, wonky. Although you may be in the same room as one of your devices, the algorithm that determines which device actually responds (as explained in this article from 9to5Google) sometimes messes up, and the wrong device will respond. Usually the mix-up is temporary — often, if I repeat my video request again, the correct response will follow from the correct device — but it is time-wasting and irritating. Especially if, for example, you’ve requested a timer for your 2-minute egg and the timer goes off in your bathroom, where you can’t hear it.

What may be the most annoying is that the reason for all this is probably marketing. Back in 2013, Google started selling its first branded phone, the Moto X, which featured a pure Android OS, snazzily colored cases and voice recognition tech, known then as Google Now. Several months after the phone launched, Google added the ability (licensed from a company called Sensory) to change the launch phrase from “OK Google Now” to anything you wanted. It was great. I named my phone “Mr. Pickwick” (I’m a Dickens fan), and I had a friend who would happily launch his phone by saying, “Mrs. Peel, you’re needed.”

Google Now has been replaced by Google Assistant, and voice recognition has become a part of everyday life. But at some point along the way, some genius at Google decided that having everybody say “OK Google,” or “Hey Google” was necessary for the company’s health (because, I suppose, otherwise we’d all forget the name of the company that had provided the technology). So now, instead of being able to assign a different launch phrase to each device, we’re stuck with a choice of two boring phrases — and must watch every device within hearing distance light up every time we use them. This is especially ironic because Amazon, Google’s main competitor in this space, allows you to assign one of four different wake words (“Alexa,” “Amazon,” “computer,” or “Echo”), so you could, in theory, assign one to each of the four devices.

And it’s all so unnecessary. We can currently assign a name to each Google Assistant device, or name a group of devices. We can even change the voice of the Google Assistant to several options, including celebrities like John Legend. So why can’t we assign a different launch phrase to each device?

Because the company that sells us the technology wants us to say its name. Constantly. All the time. No matter how much that affects the actual efficiency of the technology.

Hey, Google! Play “We’re not ruled by our marketing department” on all speakers. Thank you.

Update April 8th, 11:30AM ET: Identified the company that licensed the wake-words technology used for the Moto X.

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