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Why Google’s Ability to Recognize Multiple Voices is a Big Deal

Google (GOOG) added a new feature to its Google Home smart speaker Thursday. The Amazon Echo look-alike device can now recognize up to six voices. This is clever and useful. In my home, Alexa, which is Echo’s anthropomorphized virtual assistant, seems to recognize my voice better than my wife’s or daughter’s. I like that immensely. But I can see how the ability to recognize multiple voices would be a good thing.

As I’ve written before, voice is a compelling next frontier in computing. We’re undeniably in a Voice 1.0 moment. Alexa and its counterpart Google Assistant are nice-to-have toys, as is Apple’s Siri, but rudimentary in their usefulness. In my house, we use Alexa to play music, set timers, and not much else, despite the multitudes of “skills” Amazon emails me on a weekly basis. I could see using Alexa far more if it were as good at answering trivia questions as an old-fashioned (!) web search. (Siri has gotten quite good at trivia, for what it’s worth, but she doesn’t come wrapped up in a better-than-expected home speaker.) And if the voice-controlled web were to get even better, you could begin to imagine a world where the value of a smartphone was diminished.

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What’s particularly cool about the multiple-voice feature that Google has introduced is that it begins to answer one of the biggest usability problems with consumer-tech products, which is household sharing of accounts.

It’s a pain to switch from one Netflix user to another. (Wouldn’t voice activation be superior?) Amazon Prime is designed to be shared, but individuals like to have their own shopping identity. Apple products are the worst for sharing accounts. The new Google feature allows members of the same household—whether roommates or relatives—to link calendars, commutes, playlists and the like to one device, which will recognize the speaker and answer accordingly.

This is a cure neither for the common cold nor cancer. But it’s kind of cool.

Have a great weekend.

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