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Google Was Building Smart Speaker Prototypes Well Before Amazon Echo Showed Up

Google was working on a natural language device similar to Amazon’s Echo back in 2013, more than a year before Amazon’s breakthrough device was released.

During a meeting Wednesday at the Google I/O developer conference, two Google execs–VP of Google Assistant Scott Huffman and VP/GM of Home Products Rishi Chandra–told me that back in 2013 Google had already built prototypes of such a device. In one, some additional microphones were added to a tablet device, which was outfitted with natural language software.

The device was designed to sit in a room and listen for a trigger word (“Hey Google”) from a user in the room, then deliver information via a speaker. Not that it worked very well. “I remember waking up one morning and hearing my kids screaming at it ‘Hey Google! Hey Google!’ and it wasn’t responding,” Huffman joked.

Chandra told me Google even had a joke prototype of a voice assistant device, which was the shape of a large hockey puck, and when you lifted its lid off there was just a phone inside talking through its speaker.

Rishi Chandra

The story of the prototypes came after I asked the two men if Google had been influenced by the success of Amazon’s Echo to release its own smart speaker (Google Home in 2016). “Definitely,” said Chandra. “Amazon made a huge bet on ambient voice and it paid off,” he said.

But Huffman and Chandra don’t credit Amazon for the idea of a smart natural language speaker. Google’s own smart speaker device–Google Home–was announced a year ago at Google’s developer event, and only went on sale six months ago.

You can look at Google Home as the second major step in Google’s vision for search, and search-powered assistant features.

Scott Huffman

The first step came to life in 2013 when Google started making text search more contextual and conversational. Google began supporting nested searches where people could make a series of requests to zero in on the desired search result. The search…

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