CAN YOU name the most natural and intuitive way to interact with technology? No, not a
keyboard, a mouse or even a touch screen. It’s
speech. Voice is powering the new digital assistants that are transforming the way we do many
things in the home.
Here is a look at what these digital assistants
are, how they work, what they can do and what
the future holds.
What they are
When connected to your home’s Wi-Fi,
voice-activated personal assistants are basically
smart speakers with a sensitive microphone;
place one somewhere you hang out a lot in your
home, such as the kitchen. After saying the wake
words—“OK, Google” for Google Home—you
simply ask a question or give a command, and
you’ll hear a human-like voice respond.
Ask to hear the news, a speci;c song, a pod-cast or a joke. Set a timer for the oven, get homework help or use your voice to control the smart
devices in your home, such as the lighting or a
thermostat. Ask how many calories there are in
a slice of cheesecake, or how to say “hello” in a
These devices don’t all have the exact same
suite of features, but you get the idea.
How they work
Setting up these digital assistants is super
easy. Simply plug yours into the wall and download the companion app on your smartphone
or tablet. Launch the app and you’ll be walked
through the setup process, which is essentially
joining the device to your home’s Wi-Fi network
and then logging in with any relevant accounts
you have (required only once). That’s about it. No
other requirements or training needed, and no
monthly subscription required.
After setup, whether you’re right beside the
speaker or across the room, you say the wake
word, followed by what you want to know or what
you want the speaker to do for you. Your voice
request is quickly uploaded to the company’s
servers (their computers), and the appropriate
response is then downloaded for your speaker to
say. It all happens ridiculously fast. And you can
press a button to mute the microphone should
you not always want it on.
What they can do
Many of these devices let you use your voice
to make bill payments, order a ride-sharing service, have products delivered to your door or
;nd out if a ;ight is on time (before you leave
for the airport). Most of them can also di;er-entiate between multiple voices in your home,
so you can ask how long it’ll take to get to the
o;ce—with tra;c in mind—and you’ll get a different response than your partner who asks the
same question. If you ask it to play your favourite music, your smart speaker will know whose
playlist to load up.
Where we’re going
Smart assistants are being integrated into
many other Wi-Fi products in the home, too.
Google Assistant is now available in select TVs
(press a button on the remote to ask a question or
give a command), while other digital assistants
can be accessed in some audio gear, routers,
Wi-Fi thermostats and even appliances.
Smart screens will also be a hot item. These
small devices have not only a speaker and a
microphone, but also a touch screen and a camera. When you give a smart screen instructions,
a human-like voice will respond to you, and you’ll
also see info on the screen, such as a weather
forecast, recipes, photos and more. You can
make free video calls too, thanks to the camera.
Expect smart speakers and smart screens
to grow in popularity in the coming months and
Voice-based digital assistants
help out at home
Costco offers Google Home
and the Google mini in
warehouses and online at
Marc Saltzman, a leading
high-tech reporter, contributes to more than three dozen
appears on radio and TV,
and is the author of more
than ;; books. He’s on Twitter
Saltzman will answer
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