Factor Reviews: Google Home

Once in a while I get the chance to try out a product that really makes me feel like I’m living in the future. Not because it feels outrageous or space-agey, but because it simply and effortlessly provides something that not all that long ago would have seemed like magic. Google Home, the smart home speaker and rival to Amazon’s Alexa, is one of those products.

Combining beautiful hardware design with a delightfully simple user interface, it’s an absolute pleasure to set up and use. Connecting to the supporting Android or iOS Google Home app – which if like me you are an Android user, you probably already have – the setup is very straightforward, with clear, easy to follow steps, and lovely little animations while you wait. And you don’t have to wait long: for me, the time from opening the box to starting to use it was less than 3 minutes.

Once set up, it is extremely easy to get going with Google Home. The initial setup includes suggested interactions to get you started, and it very quickly becomes second nature to ask the device questions, add notes or get it to start timers.

Which is good, because combined with the extremely long response distance – I found it worked fine from the other side of my flat – Google Home is an invaluable tool for cooking and other activities where you have your hands full.

Ok Google: a rapidly expanding knowledge base

When it comes to asking questions, Google Assistant is a very knowledgeable source, with the ability to answer accurately on subjects ranging from obscure celebrities’ heights to the distance between various planetary bodies. Sometimes I did find it unable to answer my query, but usually only when it required the cross-referencing of multiple knowledge sources. And when I broke a question down into several sub-queries, I didn’t struggle to find the answers I’d asked for.

There are also, if you are so inclined, rather fun interactive quizzes, which made for a bizarre but entertaining session with family members.

One of the best features, however, is the response to “Tell me about my day”, which includes weather, a roundup of any appointments (automatically synced from your Gmail account, of course) and a rundown of today’s headlines. It is not only futuristic but also genuinely helpful, and a feature I am increasingly using while having my morning coffee.

In addition, one of the real appeals of Google Home is how quickly the search engine giant is adding features. It has already improved – without any input from me – in the time I’ve been testing it, and it’s clear it will continue to do so in the future, seemingly far quicker than with rivals such as Amazon Echo.

Smooth sounds: Google Home’s voice

The UK edition of the Google Assistant should also be praised for its voice – I personally found the UK female Siri voice to be intensely irritating, sounding condescending and rather too much like presenter Holly Willoughby. By contrast Google’s chosen voice is helpful and supportive, and someone I could happily hear on a very regular basis.

This is a feature that cannot be under-estimated in a voice-based assistant.

It also, notably, was very good at responding to a host of different accents, although unfortunately I was not able to test it with some of the more extreme regional accents of the UK, unless you count some fairly rubbish attempts at Scottish, which to the device’s credit, it did respond to.

The speaker itself could be better, however, but not without adding significantly to the price: there are less bassy speakers out there, but none of them have a built-in assistant, and Google Home’s is certainly decent, just not amazing.

Killer connectivity: Chromecast, Spotify and more

One ability that makes the Google Home invaluable is its integration with services such as Spotify, and with hardware such as Google’s Chromecast.

The result is a device that will play almost any music you care to name, or will allow you to cast a TV show via Netflix simply using your voice. Which feels shiny and amazing.

However, the results can be less than perfect if there are multiple similar-named programmes from which it has to choose. Asking for Gilmore Girls, for example, seems to default to it playing 2016’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life rather than the original, while if you want anything other than the Star Trek original series to play, you will need to specify.

The device also has some widely supported integration with home automation products such as smart bulbs, although I was not able to test these.

Insanely intuitive: Google Home’s ease of use

Despite all of these exciting features, the moment that really convinced me of Google Home’s specialness was when I introduced my boyfriend’s mum to it. For context, she is not a tech-savvy person: I have known her to need assistance to click ‘continue’ in an app on more than one occasion, and she is one of the most prolific adders of superfluous toolbars I have ever encountered.

So when I introduced her to this device, I expected the usual confusion and issues. Instead, she took to it better than any gadget I have ever seen her with. Within five minutes she was happily asking it questions and getting it to play music, and she now uses it without prompting or help whenever she visits.

Google, you have performed a miracle: I’m not sure this device could be more intuitive if it tried.

Google Home versus Amazon Echo

Of course, if you’re thinking about buying a Google Home, you’re probably wondering if it’s a better option than its main rival, Amazon Echo. And the honest answer to this is that it depends on what tech you have already, and what you want it for.

If you want to effortlessly buy things just by speaking, the Echo is a better shout. But if, like me, you’re all about finding out things and getting updates on what you need to do next, and do not want to make spending money any easier, then the Google Home is for you.

Similarly, if you already have Google products such as the Chromecast and Gmail, you’re in a better place to fully use this smart speaker, which, when fully utilised, is an absolute gem.

Factor’s verdict:

Adding stem cells to the brains of mice “slowed or reversed” ageing

Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists “slowed or reversed” ageing in mice by injecting stem cells into their brains.

The study, published online in the journal Nature, saw the scientists implant stem cells into mice’s hypothalamus, which caused molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs) to be released.

The miRNA molecules were then extracted from the hypothalamic stem cells and injected into the cerebrospinal fluid of two groups of mice: middle-aged mice whose hypothalamic stem cells had been destroyed and normal middle-aged mice.

This treatment significantly slowed aging in both groups of animals as measured by tissue analysis and behavioural testing that involved assessing changes in the animals’ muscle endurance, coordination, social behaviour and cognitive ability.

“Our research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and this decline accelerates aging,” said senior author Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of molecular pharmacology at Einstein.

“But we also found that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it’s possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body.”

To reach the conclusion that stem cells in the hypothalamus held the key to aging, the scientists first looked at the fate cells in the hypothalamus as healthy mice got older.

The number of hypothalamic stem cells began to diminish when the mice reached about 10 months, which is several months before the usual signs of aging start appearing. “By old age—about two years of age in mice—most of those cells were gone,” said Dr. Cai.

Images courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.

The researchers next wanted to learn whether this progressive loss of stem cells was actually causing aging and was not just associated with it.

To do this, the scientists observed what happened when they selectively disrupted the hypothalamic stem cells in middle-aged mice.

“This disruption greatly accelerated aging compared with control mice, and those animals with disrupted stem cells died earlier than normal,” said Dr. Cai.

Finally, to work out whther adding stem cells to the hypothalamus counteracted ageing, the scientists injected hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of middle-aged mice whose stem cells had been destroyed as well as into the brains of normal old mice.

In both groups of animals, the treatment slowed or reversed various measures of aging.

The scientists are now trying to identify the particular populations of microRNAs that are responsible for the anti-aging effects seen in mice, which is perhaps the first step toward slowing the aging process and successfully treating age-related diseases in humans.

Self-driving delivery cars coming to UK roads by 2018

A driverless vehicle designed to deliver goods to UK homes is set to take to the road next year after the successful conclusion of an equity crowdfunding campaign.

Developed by engineers at The University of Aberystwyth-based startup The Academy of Robotics, the vehicle, Kar-Go, is road-legal, and capable of driving on roads without any specific markings without human intervention.

Kar-Go has successfully raised £321,000 through Crowdcube – 107% of its goal – meaning the company now has the funds to build its first commercially ready vehicles. This amount will also, according to William Sachiti, Academy of Robotics founder and CEO, be matched by “one of the largest tech companies” in the world.

Images courtesy of Academy of Robotics

The Academy of Robotics has already built and tested a prototype version of Kar-Go, and is working with UK car manufacturer Pilgrim to produce the fully street-legal version.

The duo has already gained legal approval from the UK government’s Centre for Autonomous Vehicles, meaning the cars will be able to immediately operate on UK roads once built.

The aim of Kar-Go is to partner with suppliers of everyday consumer goods to significantly reduce the cost of deliveries, and the company’s goal in this area is ambitious: Sachiti believes Kar-Go could reduce delivery costs by as much as 98%.

Whether companies go for the offering remains to be seen, but the company says it is in early stage discussions with several of the largest fast-moving consumer goods companies in Europe, which would likely include the corporations behind some of the most recognisable brands found in UK supermarkets.

Introducing Kar-go Autonomous Delivery from Academy of Robotics on Vimeo.

While some will be sceptical, Sachiti is keen to drive the company to success, and already has an impressive track record in future-focused business development. He previously founded Clever Bins – the solar powered digital advertising bins found in many of the nation’s cities – and digital concierge service MyCityVenue – now part of SecretEscapes.

“As a CEO, it is one of my primary duties to make sure Kar-go remains a fantastic investment, this can only be achieved by our team producing spectacular results. We can’t wait to show the world what we produce,” he said.

“We have a stellar team who are excited to have begun working on what we believe will probably be the best autonomous delivery vehicle in the world. For instance, our multi-award winning lead vehicle designer is part of the World Championship winning Brabham Formula One design team, and also spent years as a Design Engineer at McLaren.”