How this Google Home app helped my father after his stroke

About a year ago my father had a stroke. After 70 years of work as a salesman, 6 days-a-week for 12 hours-a-day, this deficiency forced him into retirement. Hoping to get back to work, he received speech therapy but never fully recovered.

Now in retirement, his typical quiet demeanor at home has kept him from exercising his neural network to reroute his audio connections. He is not tech savvy, so my attempts to get him using games on Luminosity have been unsuccessful.  

This Thanksgiving, during my visit to my parents house, I decided to see how he would fair with a Google Home. So far it has been great! Even practicing the wake word “Hey, Google” was a challenge at first, but he is improving dramatically.

Excited, I went through all the games I could find. I quickly realized just how unintuitive and disorganized the App side of Google Home still is. Some apps worked, and some didn’t. Either an app was “Not Found” or “Not Responding” when I tried to activate it. Sometimes an app would unexpectedly quit mid use. Even more frustrating were the multiple steps needed to try the above search for a working app over and over again after hitting a dead end. For example:

Me: “Hey Google” (Google Lights up)

Me: “Talk to X Game” (Wait)

Google: “Sorry, I could not find X Game” (wait for light to go off)

….Start over with another game name”

Navigation through the voice-UI was frustrating as well, and for my Dad it was impossible. To work around the issue, I went through all the games I could find online, and wrote down the ones that worked from the ones that did not. Then, I wrote our an old-school paper cheat-sheet that listed each game and its commands.

“Hey Google, – Let’s play a game”

“Hey Google, – Play 1-2-3 game”

….

What made it more complicated was that some trigger words required the user to say “Play” while others required the words “Talk to”. There is no reasoning I could find as to why there was a differences. What I realized is that these nuances were terrible difficult to retain for my non-tech savvy Dad. So, listing them out distinctly, on paper, and placing the paper next to the Google Home Device, was the best way I could provide the info to him.

One thing my Dad has retained since coming to the US is his keen memory of the US Presidents. I imagine he studied american history proudly and tirelessly when he moved here and sought his citizenship. Unfortunately, the Presidents Quiz, which I found listed in Google Home’s marketplace, and one I was sure he would like, was one of the games that was “Not Responding”.

At first I was disappointed, but then realized this was the perfect opportunity to try and build a Home App! I set out to create a US Presidents Quiz on Google Home for my Dad. 🙂

There are many ways to build a Google Home app. The two I explored were DialogFlow (https://console.dialogflow.com – formerly app.ai) and the “Actions” console (https://console.actions.google.com/u/0/). Dialog Flow had a great UI that made it seems like it would be simple to set up an interaction, but the concept of Intents, Events, Entities, Training Phrases and Responses was complex. What fed into what, and where I was suppose to handle requests from users and deliver responses did not come easily.

Google Actions is amazingly simple and perfect for those looking to build a game or quiz. WhileDialogFlow has many samples (https://developers.google.com/actions/samples/github) and plenty of docs, I decided Actions made the most sense, and I would leave DioalogFlow for another project; by using Actions, I could spin up an entire game in a single night. Interested in creating your own? Just follow this extremly simpley one-pager: https://developers.google.com/actions/templates/trivia. No code required!

The more labor intensive part of this project was listing out the hundreds of questions, correct answers, and purposefully wrong answers for multiple choice, I needed to seed the game.

You can check it our yourself, by saying:

“Hey Google, Talk to US Presidents Quiz”
Or by opening it in the directory here.

UPDATE:

Here is a print out for commands if you have a similar situation.

Firebase is 🔥

I’ve had the pleasure to watch the Firebase product grow from an idea our office buddies had as a startup, into a formidable product, and then to a suite of products at Google. I’ve been really impressed with what the founders have done. Hats off to them.

This is not a fluff piece for a friend though. To be honest, and for whatever reason, I never really used the platform until about a year ago; just didn’t have a need.

That has all changed, and, today, I see firebase as more than just a cool product, but one that I truly love and have received tremendous value from. Here is how I got there and why I feel that way.

Remember Parse? Facebook acquired the DB as a service in April 2013, and shut them down in Jan 2017. If I remember correctly, Firebase served as Google’s way to address that chasm and provide a novel, cloud-based, data platform that was especially friendly to mobile developers.

A lot  has changed since, on the Firebase platform. Their systems is more than just a websocket based, real-time, hash database. It is a veneer to the plethora of services that sit locked away in Google’s not-so-friendly-to-use ecosystem.

It was very unlikely that I move from what I know in AWS, to what I do not know, and can not easily navigate, Google Cloud Platform. My initial need for a database that handled live-reloads on data update, grew into me using their storage, auth, hosting, serverless/functions, and logging services. In fact, it didn’t hit me that they were just tapping into GCP until I had to edit some auth/keys in the system; that’s just how seamless it is.

Out of curiosity, I tried to copy the same functionality of my Firebase system by setting up a GCP-only clone. It was a crappy experience! One I would never have taken the time to ramp up  on otherwise.

With firebase, if you want storage, boom you got it. Want to right some serverless functions, easy. Checkout logs and crash analytics, yup you’re covered. Create a key to allow access to your system? No problem. In just a few click or a few lines of code, you can get up and running easily, and have the power of Google (without the admin overhead) behind you.

When it comes to filler features to help keep moving quickly, Firebase is there for you. Whether it is a beautiful auth flow (without a bias to only using Google auth), an invite system, or “who is logged in now”, Firebase does not say “that is not core – go some place else or build it yourself”. I have found myself coming back to them, even when a live-db is not a requirement for the ease in implementing those filler features alone.

If there was a critique, it would be that their use of storage for video is not top notch. They lag behind AWS for their ability to pull content seamlessly. Not much else.

Comparing Google Photos and Amazon Cloud Drive

Since starting this trip about 2 months ago we’ve taken an average of about 50 photos/videos a day, between our two iPhones and our Coolpix Camera. A month into the trip my external hard drive was filling up fast and I began to worry about how I could keep our growing collection of photos safe without spending a ton of money.

When Amazon offered its unlimited storage CloudDrive product for $55/year (with a 3 month free trial) I jumped at the chance to get in. I’ve uploaded about 70 gigs of photos and video since then and have dealt with some annoying features along the way. I just brushed the annoyances off because I figured A) Amazon would keep iterating on the product to improve it over time and B) there wasn’t any deal out there as good as theirs.

Then a few days ago Google released their unlimited Photo storage product too. Damn. At first I felt as though having options  made things worst. Now I had to decide which product to go with, and, if I did change products, I had to download 70+ gigs of data from Amazon over these shitty hotel networks and reupload them to Google.

I started uploading our new pics to Google this week to give it a whirl and the differences have been fairly major. Google seem to me to be the clear winner for me so far, here’s why.

Amazon Cloud Drive (ACD)

Amazon's File List View
Amazon’s File List View

Amazon's Photos Viewer
Amazon’s Photos Viewer

 Problems I have with ACD

  • You can only share a couple photos/videos at a time
  • The web interface fails if there is a disconnection or network problem.
  • The desktop interface was not better than the web – so why have it?
  • The download of the thumbnails on the media viewer were slow and many photos didn’t ever make it down.
  • Sometimes the video didn’t play or trying to enlarging photos for preview wouldn’t work.
  • Search rarely worked.

The good parts of ACD

  • I liked the folder system to organize things manually
  • You can store ANYTHING with unlimited storage. Files or Photos.
  • There are no limits on the size of your media you upload
  • They were first?

Google Photos

All Photos View
All Photos View

Auto Organized by Place, Scene, or Thing
Auto Organized by Place, Scene, or Thing

Manually Created Collections
Manually Created Collections

Shared Photos Manager
Shared Photos Manager

Problems With Google Photos

  • Can only store photos and video
  • There is a limit on the size of the photos and video you upload.
    • At first that concerned me but none of my media hits those limits so it is moot.
  • No file system.
    • Though, now that I have used it for a week I don’t think I really needed one.
  • Not really sure what the “Assistant” can do for me.
    • It does a few cool things but not all that valuable.  Like it created an animated gif of random files in case I wanted them….Maybe I will dig it down the road…

What I love about Google Photos

  • It organizes my photos/videos into locations
  • I can share entire collections or individual photos. I can easily manage those shared photos easily through a management console.
  • The image viewer loads super quickly. Same network, no missing  images thumbnails
  • Search works great and you can use it to find more than just file names.
  • It recognizes THINGS! Like “ruins” and “beaches.”
    • I don’t know how I will use that, maybe when writing blogs and I want to find something quickly. More importantly, who cares how I use it – it is freaking cool!
  • Smoother flowing design. Not fancy, just clean.
  • The web uploader is way nicer than ACD.
    • It shows you thumbnails of your photo and video being uploaded. You can pause it. And when you lose connection it just holds its current upload position until it gets a connection again (even when the computer sleeps.) I have not got an error yet – and with ACD it was always an issue.
  • I can organize my albums visually.
    • With ACD I had folders (w/ a listview of the files) or a photo view with ALL of my media by date. With Google my collections are as easy to skim through.

Overall the UX of ACD was clunky and the service was more expensive. So, I guess I don’t have that hard of a decision to make after all.

One thing I wish they both did is allow me to use my cloud stores images as IMG’s in my website. It would be great not to have to upload them twice for display. It seems like they provide only a temporary link for the photo itself.

 

How Google Works: What is innovation?

My friend William and I started a book club – of two. So, I guess book duo would be more precise. Anyhow, our first book we read together was How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. One question that sparked a conversation at one of our meetings was was with the definition in the book on innovation.

The book states “For something to be innovative, it needs to be new, surprising, and radically useful.”

The questions that came up were:

  • Did we agree with that definition?
  • To what extent do you agree with this statement?
  • Is the innovation defined on a continuum/scale, or is the question of something being innovative a yes/no question?
  • How do you measure “radically useful”?
  • Why must it be “surprising?”
  • When do you determine when something is useful?

After some disagreements and concession this here is what we concluded:

Innovation is not binary, it can lie on a continuum.

We broke “innovation” down into invention (something new), innovation (an invention that is 2X or more better than what exists), disruption (an invention that is 10X+ better than what exists and that displaces, or noticeable begins to displace, something heavily used today.)

Using an example in the book, where does an improvement such as the auto-search functionality lie? Is what you are planning to do iterative? Is it 2X, 3X or 10X better?

I’ve had applied this more detailed perspective to some projects I am working on during the planning of potential roadmaps. In some cases this question hurt the iterative process, it caused us to overthink simple iterations that in aggregate could lead to something greater in the future. After all, sometimes *trying* to innovate kills the creative free thinking environment that breeds innovation. In other cases it helped us stretch our ideas into something more impactful, for example asking “How much better do you think that is than what we have, 2X, 3X ….?”

How to make free calls home from around the world

imgres-5Wouldn’t it be nice to make free calls to your home country from anywhere in the world? How great would it be if friends and family at home could call you for free while you travel? Sure you can use Skype or Viber to make internet calls, but with them everyone needs to use the same service; it won’t work well when calling a business or landline. With the method below you can call any phone number directly, be it a home phone, cell phone or app. To do it all you need is a Google Account, a phone number with your local “home” area code (only initially,) and a computer with an Internet connection.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Sign up for a Google Voice number in your home country before you leave.
  2. Google will provide you a new local number called your “Google Voice Number.”
  3. “Link” your GVoice number to an existing landline or cell number to complete the registration. Note: You can only have one GVoice number for every landline or cell phone you have.

 Your new GVoice number will charge you for “international calls” made to area codes outside your designated GVoice’s area code, BUT it will consider any call to the same GVoice area code a “free call” – no matter where in the world you call from! See screenshots and captions below. 

Google_Voice_-_Inbox__6_ 2
After registering you must verify your new number is connected to a real non-google number.

Google_Voice_-_Inbox__6_
Using the voice.google.com (or hangouts) you can make or receive calls or text to your GVoice number.

Google__Hangouts
All calls made with the same area code as your GVoice number will be free – no matter where you call from!

In addition to the free calls, you will have voicemail that includes a free automatic transcription service, allowing you to read your voicemail messages. You will also have the ability to send and receive texts. Another great option is to use the Hangouts app. Using it you can make internet based calls to other Hangout user AND direct to local phone numbers from your phone.

For travelers this feature gives you an amazing way to stay connected to family and friends at home while using a local number they can call for free as well!

3 reasons why I’m bullish on extensions, plus a better scheduling app.

simplicity-b2b-content-marketingScheduling time to meet with someone is one of those things that’s just hard enough to be annoying, but probably not complex enough to need a whole new tool to simplify it. It’s one of those problems that makes for a perfect example of how-to, or how-not-to, create a great product.

Often in the product world we find a problem we want to solve and end up creating a far more complex system to solve it; one in which the user has to change usage patterns or require ramp up time. As a result, minor problems and annoyances (like scheduling meetings) don’t get dramatic improvements because the cost v. benefit v. ramp-up never quite get to a point in which the user is willing to change their habits to gain the benefits from a new tool. “I’ll just send an email” or “I’ll just use a spreadsheet” can kill the potential for “robust” products. And rightly so, email and spreadsheets are comfortable, versatile and already understood between groups.

That’s why I have been bullish on extensions, especially the Google Chrome ones.

The good ones are able to find a balance between:

  • A lack of ramp-up time.
  • An integration into the tools and workflows I already use.
  • No requirement for other parties to have the platform in order to use it.

189171-bf657de80640275b84d3931444d6fafe-medium_jpgAn example of a great extension I was introduced to recently is Assistant.to. Assistant.to is a Chrome extension that links to your Google Calendar and extends your Google Email composer so you can easily drop-in potential appointment/meeting times as text and links in your email. There was no setup, all the interaction happens within the GMail composer, and the form factor works in a way that needs no additional explanation or signups for the receiver.

It is a must have tool for sure! Here are some screenshots of the workflow:

 

Checking_in____-_sean_shadmand_gmail_com_-_Gmail
Extension overlay

 

Checking_in____-_sean_shadmand_gmail_com_-_Gmail 2
Expanded overlay

 

Checking_in____-_sean_shadmand_gmail_com_-_Gmail 3
Select availability

 

Checking_in____-_sean_shadmand_gmail_com_-_Gmail 4
Available times copy and pasted

 

Assistant_to_-_Your_Personal_Scheduling_Assistant
Meeting confirmed

As a note, another great extensions I’ve been using lately is the one Grammerly.com that allows great inline writting corrections and tools.

Product Review: The Google Chromecast

I love my Google Chromecast. It’s light weight, cheap, simple to use and is very transportable. I’ve tried many bulky pieces of equipment to enhance my home theater experience such as a Roku, Google TV, and Apple TV. For all the extra features those products could provide, and the extra costs they had to have them, Google Chromecast is the only that has given me exactly what I needed. Sometimes less is more; this is one of those cases.

One thing the other products failed to appreciate is how much of my time is based on my laptop, and how readily available it (or my iphone) is. I don’t need a second computer to run my TV. My laptop has everything I need so making the main media hub makes sense. No additional keyboards or remotes needed.

Chromecast uses your wifi network and its built-in HDMI jack to create a media bridge between your computer and your TV. Once connected you will need to download the Chromecast extension for your chrome browser. Once it place you’ll have the ability connect your browser (and everything on it) to your screen. If you want to play movies then all you need to do is drag your movie file into Chrome and the browser will play it as well. If you want to share your desktop with your screen just use the Beta screen casting option – which is still a bit hit or miss.

I don’t need more and I am happy to pay less. (Chromecast is 66% less than most alternatives in the market today.) If you haven’t taken the leap to get one I suggest you do, or make sure it is on your christmas list 🙂

Google Hangouts Finally Work!

I have been trying Google Hangouts sporadically for the last … 6 months or so. Using it once a month to handle a group chat or video chat instead of my regular Skype, phone, or webex usage. It improved tremedously each month, but since in the first few months it wouldnt evenload correctlt thta wasnt saying much. By the time it finally started loading correctly for me it was dropping calls left and right and very choppy in the UI.

All that being said, it was a great day in the video conference world today: our team at Socialize used Hangouts for a group call and it worked flawlessly! Hooray, finally a group video chat system that actually works. Of course I am holding back a little bit since most video chat services are hit or miss, but I must admit that the steady growth of improvement on Google Hangouts is nice, and if it keeps up this trajectory it will be the goto for me and my team.

 

Some cool features that come with GHang:

1 – You can schedule a hangout on your calendar

2 – You can video chat with multiple poeple for free

3 – It comes with the standard “effects” sweet people know and love. We had a good time using the “applause” effect for each persons update, and the “gong” effect when the meeting was over.

4 – You can screen share to the group pretty easily

5 – You can pull in your Google Drive data into the chat. Which is nice for us since we use GDrive a lot. I haven’t tried it yet, but presentations in GDrive should integrate well…

Give Google Hangouts a shot, and let me know if it worked smoothly for you too, or if my glee is premature.

 

Chrome Tip: Multi-profiles and Offline Docs

You may have already used the Chrome incognito profile, but what you may not know about is the fact that chrome now allows you to create and use multiple profiles on your computer. While incognito us used to specfically ensure that no data is stored or tracked on your system based on the sites and pages you visit, profiles allow you to better manage the various ways those pages are stored either online or off. Here is how to use them.

Incognito Mode:

Incognito mode ( i.e. the mode with the browser icon as a sunglass and hat wearing fellow in this blog’s screen shot ) prevents pages you visit from being tracked, stored in history and clears all cookies from your session once the window is closed, no matter what the site you are visiting has set. There are many reasons why you may want to do this. The cite version: You and your girlfriend use the same computer and you don’t want her to know about the surprise earrings you have been shopping for her online. The not so cute version, well, let’s just say you can avoid getting in trouble like Jim Levenstein does in American Reunion. (BTW, that movie is not worth seeing even if to only get the joke)

To enable incognito mode go to the menu ( ) option in the top right corner of your Chrome browser and select “New Incognito Window” or press Command+Shift+N . Also note: Chrome in your app on your mobile device has the same options and works the same way.

Signing in to Chrome

Chrome can connect to your GMail account, and doing so allows you to do things like sync bookmarks between devices, as well as allow you to edit your Google Drive documents stored on the cloud even while you have no internet connection available. This tool came in handy recently when I came up with some ideas for a document I was working on while at a hotel that didn’t have wifi available. I simply made the changes needed and when internet resumed the doc was synced and merged to my online version of the doc. By signing in to your Google account on chrome a default profile for your computer ( i.e. the mode with the browser icon as a head with no face in this blog’s screen shot ) will be automatically assigned to you and connected to the account you signed in with.

To login to your Google account in Chrome go to the menu ( ) option in the top right corner of your Chrome browser and select “Sign In”. You will then be given the Google login page. Sign in as you would with your GMail account and you are all set.

Enabling Your Chrome Profile to Work on Docs Offline

If you haven’t used your Google Drive already you should really take a second to get to know it. Not only can you store 5GB of files of any type for free in your Google Drive AND use them as a local drive on your computer and phone just like Dropbox, BUT you can use it to create and save documents of various types that you can use to collaborate on simultaneous with other users.

To explain the latter more clearly through example: We use Google Docs at Socialize at all our meetings. During the meeting we create a google doc and throughout the meeting anyone can add, append, change or update the way the notes are taken all at the same time. You can see one another typing as you type and often times most of the meeting will be completed in silence while everyone adds their notes to the doc. Collaboration is saved and shared in a document instantly.

But I digress…

To enable your Google docs to have offline access first go to your Google Drive (http://drive.google.com). On the left hand menu select the “more” drop down to reveal extra options. Finally click “offline docs” and enable. Your drive will sync your docs to your local Chrome profile. Note: If you do not see the “Offline Docs” in the “more” dropdown, and you are using Google App for work, you will need to either enable the feature in your Google App’s Admin portal, or get your sysadmin to do it for you. It is located in the Google Drive sectionof the Admin’s “Settings” tab.

Multiple Chrome Profiles

You are probably just fine getting your Google Drive working on your default Chrome profile to work on offline docs, just as I was for quite some time. The problem is that when I tried to enable offline docs for my personal Google Drive documents, as well as my work docs, the Google Drive system did not allow it. Chrome only allows one offline sync per Chrome profile. To fix this problem you will need to create an additional Chrome Profile on your browser ( i.e. create a mode with a different browser icon like the one with the Ninja in this blog’s screen shot ), and then enable Offline Docs in your Google Drive while in the correct profile.

To add additional profiles to Chrome go to the menu ( ) option in the top right corner of your Chrome browser and select “Settings”. Scroll down to the “Users” section and choose “Add new user.” Once you have added a profile correctly your Users section should look something like this:

Switching Between Profiles

To switch between profile simply click the icon for your current profile in the top right of the browser and choose the profile you wish to use. Once selected, a new browser window will open with that profile enabled.

Google Maps for iPhone Saves the Day. Thanks Santa!

It’s finally here – Google Maps for iPhone! Seriously, thank god.

The Apple maps has gotten allot of flack, and I try to stay out of the bashing business, but man – it kept shoving the fact that it blows in my face for quite some time and it couldn’t be ignored.

On my iPhone4 the new Google maps movement is a bit choppy, but that could very well be my old device struggling to keep up. The funny thing about this app coming out now before christmas is that I was seriously considering upgraind to Android (as I believe 2013 will be the true shift for Google/Android’s supremacy  , but with this app iPhone5 slipped right back into my option pool. Interesting play Google, interesting play…

 

One thing to observe: My home screen of my iPhone has now gone from Apple maps, mail, and safari to now sporting a Google trifecta of Google Maps, Gmail, and Chrome. All with my user account logged in. It is like Google is slowly creating an unatachable symbotic relationship with my iphone. All the apps from Google listed are a bit choppy but I still made them my primary apps for those functions for two reasons, 1) I am ready for a visual/ux refresh and a hybrid of Apple charm with Google power is satisfying 2) I use Google in every other aspect of my life, so why not one more? I see more of this to come in 2013.

Also, cheers to Google for giving into the mobile app revolution and ending their forced fight to “preserve” the HTML5 movement for the better of us all. The goal is always to make great products, and if HTML5 can do that now – use it, if you are giving up quality – don’t. It’s simple. I am glad they and others like Facebook finally realized how to play the game. Although it is a 6 year delayed reaction I am happy it’s here.