Google engineers sometimes like to say the Star Trek computer is the ideal search engine. You can talk to it like it were a person, ask it anything, and it’ll tell you the answer — verbally. During the keynote at Google I/O developer conference last week, the company demonstrated how it’s bringing exactly that technology to the Chrome browser.
I came away from the demo thinking we’re still a far cry from actually having a conversation with a computer…
Although the upgrade isn’t available yet, Mashable got some hands-on time with it at the I/O. To be clear, Chrome already has voice search (that’s what the little microphone is in the Google.com search box), but Google will soon be augmenting it with a new user experience that includes the ability to speak back to you.
At the keynote, Google’s Johanna Wright demonstrated how that works through queries and follow-up questions. “Show me things to do in Santa Cruz,” she said, and Chrome replied, “OK. Here are some things to do in Santa Cruz,” showing pictures of several landmarks. Picking the boardwalk, she then asked “How far is it from here?” (note the pronouns) and Google told her.
It’s an impressive demo, to be sure, but does it work in reality? At a Google booth that had a Chromebook with the upgrades, I got a chance to find out.
First Google went through a semi-canned demo, asking Chrome how old Barack Obama is and who is wife is. When it heard the queries properly (it was a trade show floor, after all), the browser spoke the exact right answers.
I first tried an easy one. “Where is Candlestick Park?” Chrome got it right and read me the street address. But when I tried to duplicate the keynote magic by asking “How far is it from here?” Chrome punted, spitting out a typical list of links.
Google reps told me that the keyword “it” hadn’t yet been programmed into the upgrade version I was using. There is a build that includes “it”, they said, although it’s still experimental and may not be in the the initial upgrade.
Moving on, we tried asking Chrome “Who is Pete Cashmore?” It quickly replied to verbally tell us what we already knew — he’s Mashable‘s CEO. Then I asked, “Where was he born?” Again, spot-on: Scotland. But when I tried a second follow-up, including “How old is he?” I saw links again.
Thinking the problem might be that I should have followed up with a question about Scotland, I tried the first two questions again, then asked “What’s the population?” Again, those pesky links.
It’s worth noting that on mobile, the experience was also quirky, but in a different way. Google Now already voice search — as well as replies — and it can also interpret follow-up questions in context. Asking about Pete again, Google Now gave me the correct answer the “Where was he born?” follow-up when I first asked “Who is Pete Cashmore?” but not if I asked, “Who is the CEO of Mashable?” Verbal replies were inconsistent, too, sometimes speaking the answer and sometimes not.
I came away from the demo thinking we’re still a far cry from actually having a conversation with a computer, but Chrome voice search still can be useful — and a potentially faster way to find specific information. Right now that information is fairly basic and only works if you use the proper language. But the service is evolving. When you can ask Chrome things like “Who sold more phones last quarter: Apple or Samsung?” and it can tell you the correct answer, it could change the way we research things.
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