Digital assistants allow no-hands electronic game playing

Posted: November 11, 2017 at 1:43 a.m.

We just played Animal Trivia, World Foods Trivia and What's Your Nickname without touching a phone, computer or board game. We used Google Home, the digital assistant. We paid $130 when it first came out, but now there's a new version called the Mini, which you can get for $49. This matches the price for Amazon's Alexa.

Christmas shopping is on the horizon, and people are going to be making decisions and price is often the deciding factor. So are there differences? You bet. Most would consider them slight, Bob thinks they're enormous. Bob prefers Google. Joy on the other hand, thinks Alexa has lots of advantages. Whaddaya gonna do?

She particularly likes an Alexa game called Yes, Sire, in which you try to rise in the King's estimation. Don't rise too far or too quickly, however, or he'll start to worry and have you executed, too many wrong decisions and you'll be exiled. This is pretty much like real life. Perhaps you're not really cut out for the King's court.

Alexa is the market leader right now. Most reviewers have gone on record as preferring it, which makes Bob suspicious that advertising revenue might be influencing some decisions. They say this Amazon device is the cat's meow, or maybe its pajamas. This baffles Bob. He feels Google wins in a walk. The main advantage -- and it's a big one -- is that Google Home can access YouTube, which Google owns. So you get to hear whole pieces in classical music and whole albums of musicals and Broadway shows, even choosing between performers. Alexa gives you pieces in pieces.

Just for a random test of their capabilities Bob recently asked Google Home to play some Kurdish folk music, referring to the tribe which occupies parts of Iraq and Turkey. He figured that would be pretty obscure but Google Home started right up with a bunch. Alexa said "Sorry, I couldn't find any." In previous "conversations" or whatever you want to call these interchanges, we found that in questions about the number of deaths by various causes, the number of highway miles or forests and a host of other obscure but possibly interesting information, Google Home came up with answers, but Alexa did not. It's early days of course, and we're sure Amazon will have an explanation that boils down to saying "it's early days." We're not anti-Amazon, by the way, we use it all the time; we're just pointing out strengths and weaknesses here.

A really significant difference is that Google Home can cast YouTube programs to your TV. You need one of the smart TVs and a $35 Chromecast for that. Tell Google what you want and you can watch a lecture, TED talk, college course, and even a movie if it's in the YouTube selection list. We've done this and you just have to ask: "Hey Google, play a chemistry lecture on our TV." If this is too exciting, you might prefer astrophysics.

There are some personality differences. When we ask for a specific game to play, Google often says "I don't understand." It works better to say "Hey Google, play a game," and then choose one of the suggestions. This is fun for kids and educational for grown-ups. In playing Animal Trivia, we learned that goldfish can remember stuff for three months, gorillas have unique nose prints and the hair of a Yorkshire terrier never stops growing. Who knew? In World Food Trivia, we learned that slurping down noodles in Japan is not rude but shows you enjoyed the meal.

Recently, Google rolled out 50 new activities for kids, including lots of stories. You can say "Tell me a bedtime story" or just "tell me a story." We listened to "The Tired Alien" and "The Chef Who Loved Potatoes." Say "Flip a coin" to solve a dispute. Google Home can also play soothing bedtime sounds such as babbling brook, thunderstorm or country night.

You can get much of the benefit of Google Home, however, by installing Google Assistant on your iPhone or older Android phone. It already comes on later model Android phones.

"And," as Kurt Vonnegut liked to say, "so it goes."

INTERNUTS

Search on the phrase "YouTube BBC Teach" to find YouTube videos aimed at high school and elementary school students. We learned about Mary Anning, a paleontologist who made some new discoveries in the Jurassic fossil beds along the English channel.

This is very commercial, but we'll pass it on anyway: Meggalife.com lets you earn points for your retirement account at E.F. Hutton every time you use the site to do anything online, such as browsing the Internet or sharing photos. Partial revenue generated from their ads is deposited into a trust fund managed by Hutton and redeemable at age 68.

APP HAPPY

Noisli is a $2 app for Android and iPhone that offers background sounds for relaxation or productivity. Go to Noisli.com to try them out or listen for free. We like the thunderstorm best.

Canva is a free app for making online greeting cards and Facebook posts. The art is out of this world. Change the wording on a template to make it your own.

Amazon Music App, free for Android and iPhone, strikes up the band. Tap the word "Alexa" within the app and tell her to play music for sleeping, music for cooking, music from the 1940s or your favorite decade, or a specific song. To get the app, search on "Amazon Music for Windows" or "Amazon Music for Mac."

Infiltr is a free app for iPhone/iPad that gives your photos intense colors. It's similar to the popular 99-cent app Color Splash, but you don't have to draw a mask around the image, which can be a lot of work. You can see how it works on YouTube. It also changed the depth of field but we weren't awed.

Bob and Joy Schwabach can be reached by email at bobschwa@gmail.com and joydee@oncomp.com.

Business on 11/11/2017