At one section of Google’s giant outdoor booth at CES was an impromptu, carney-style one-man show, with a guy wearing dark sunglasses and a white Google Assistant jumpsuit loudly and enthusiastically giving away free electronics one by one to a snaking line of gawking tech-show goers.
“He got a Google Home Mini! Let’s get a picture, boss!” he yelled out as I walked by on Thursday.
“Google’s even giving out smart lights!” he told the crowd. “I didn’t even know lights could be smart! Congratulations, dude!”
This one booth bro embodied Google’s efforts at CES 2018, with the search giant making a rare and splashy appearance at the world’s largest tech show. The company was working to drum up attention for its Google Assistant voice helper as it tries to catch up to Amazon’s Alexa, the dominant force in voice-controlled smart speakers.
That blow-for-blow fight between Amazon and Google highlights the tech industry’s expectation that voice assistants will play a much bigger role in your digital life this year. Executives from both companies at CES talked about bringing their voice assistants to many more places like cars, earbuds and office meeting rooms, so your voice assistant can seamlessly be available to you anytime and anywhere — apparently even on the toilet.
“If voice is going to be everywhere, you want to see voice transition from the home, when you get into your car. … You’d also want it at work,” said Steve Rabuchin, Amazon’s vice president of Alexa Voice Service and Alexa Skills. “We’re going off into auto and these other places because we believe voice is a natural interface and it should be ambient.”
So far, voice assistants have built up a fanbase as controllers of the smart home, helping people play music or operate their connected lights. The challenge will be whether these assistants can effectively transition into other places. That test is already playing out in phones, with Apple‘s Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant already available in oodles of handsets, but results have been mixed.
Plus, some customers, concerned about privacy, may not want their assistants to travel with them. Others might be annoyed if someone is loudly chatting with his assistant out in public, requiring new guidelines for voice assistant etiquette.
At a posh suite in the Wynn resort, Gummi Hafsteinsson, product management director for Google Assistant, last Tuesday sat by two new Google Assistant-powered smart displays, which are essentially smart speakers with built-in touchscreens. Google teamed up with Sony, Samsung-owned JBL, LG and Lenovo to create four of these displays, which had been unveiled at CES the day before.