(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Operator, Give Me Information

Technology is suposed to make life easier — robots will clean our homes, hyperdrive will get us to distant galaxies and we’ll have the science to whip up a cup of Earl Grey, hot, out of thin air.  While we’re not quite there yet, Apple, Microsoft and Google are at least trying to get the helpful interactive virtual  assistant thing sorted out.

As you may recall, Apple’s Siri got a lot of press a few years ago with her splashy debut on the iPhone 4S. Microsoft’s Cortana arrived this spring for Windows Phone 8.1. Then there’s Google Now, which has been lurking since around 2012 and has been adding features since. Each system uses a form of natural language user interface to accept questions and commands asked in an informal manner.

Of the three, Google Now may be the most subdued. While it can speak up on some occasions, it mostly mines your data quietly from Google services and then tries to present data nuggets it thinks you’ll need, like traffic and weather for your location. With Siri, you press a button, ask the software for information and it responds back, usually with what you wanted. Siri can also address messages, make appointments and set reminders when you command it. Cortana tries to utilize both approaches, by responding to voice-activated commands, while also gathering more factoids about you so it can better predict your needs.

Google Now can do some voice-activated activities, like search, but it’s a less splashy service. If you have an Android device — especially one from Google — or use the Google Search app on your iOS device, computer’s Chrome browser or Windows 8 hardware with your Google account, you have probably run into Google Now.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to use the service, but if you don’t mind it poking around in your other Google services accounts like Gmail and YouTube, it can be useful. For example, once Google Now pulls info from your current location, search history, its own queries to you and your Gmail account, it can:

  • Give you the score of your favorite team’s game last night
  • Alert you to any traffic problems for your morning commute
  • Display the current price for selected stocks
  • Show when your latest Amazon order shipped
  • Tell you when your favorite blog updated
  • Round up headlines about your favorite movies and TV shows
  • Remind you to pay your bills.

In other examples of real-world use, Google Now can also show you the emailed digital boarding pass for your flight tomorrow night, tell you what time to leave for the airport (to catch that very flight) and thoughtfully show you the weather forecast for both home and your destination city.

This can all be very helpful and very creepy at the same time.

To get the most out of Google Now, let it use information from your search history. Unless of course, you often search for stuff, (without an incognito window) you’d rather not have popping up on screen.

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To customize your screen, open the Google Search app to the Google Now screen, flick down and tap the little magic wand icon at the bottom of the screen. Here, you can pick the sports teams and stocks you want to follow, choose the places you love and work for traffic and weather reports and get local TV listings. If you search for a particular TV show on Google and get a Set a Reminder link for that show in your results, Google Now shows that reminder on your screen the day of the show.

Using Google Now is pretty straightforward. When you tap open the Google Now widget from your Android screen or open the Google Search app, you see all the little bits of information displayed as “cards” that you can scroll through. If you don’t care about one of the info card, you can flick it off the screen for the time being, or tap the menu icon to stop further updates.

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Google Now also has Google Voice Search built in, so just say “OK, Google” to your device and then announce what you want to search for. Depending on what you ask, you may even get an audio response, like the current temperature. If you are using Google Chrome on your desktop and are logged into your Google account there, you can get Google Now notifications on the computer for alerts you set up on your mobile device.

Once again, like Siri and Cortana, Google Now does mine your personal information to do its job. If this gives you the wiggins, don’t use it. But if you figure Google, Facebook, Apple and the rest of them are all up in your business anyway and you don’t mind getting extra information about the things affecting your life each day, virtual assistants can save you time — and maybe make a few of those secret JARVIS fantasies come true.

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