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July 8, 2017

Google Assistant could learn a thing or two from Bixby Voice

by John_A

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Bixby’s conversational, apologetic nature helps make it one of the more humanized digital assistants out there.

Bixby Voice still isn’t live yet, even as Samsung as made plans to launch more products with it in the future. The service has officially missed its originally projected launch window, and it looks like it won’t be ready until after the Galaxy Note 8. At present, all we have to pull from is a limited preview, which I’ve been using for the past few weeks in an attempt to experience what it is Samsung’s endeavoring to do here.

The good news is that there is something to look forward to. There is relative ease in using Bixby, and once you get into the habit, the button on the side of the Galaxy S8/S8+ also starts to make sense. It’s clear what Samsung’s gunning for here is a more personalized experience to Google Assistant. It’s not as predictive or as useful in its current implementation, but the sheer fact that it’s easier to talk to may be what gives it a prominent place on the shelf of Android’s available digital assistants.

It’s as complicated as talking to a person

Interacting with Bixby is effectively like talking to a human. Whereas Google Assistant can sometimes feel robotic and overly programmed, Bixby seems like an entity with the sole purpose of learning what its user likes. In fact, every time you bark a command, it asks for feedback to ensure it’s doing precisely what you asked for.

Bixby asks for feedback to ensure it’s doing precisely what you asked for

Granted, no human is that obsessed with pleasing another, but with Bixby having trouble understanding U.S. English (hence its delay) it’s nice to be able to provide that instant feedback rather than grunting, pressing the button, and trying again. That’s how you’d solve a problem with a friend, after all; you’d forego the attitude and attempt to make amends. That’s what Bixby’s trying here, too.

With Google’s offerings, I have to think of the one command that encompasses every action I want to happen. For instance, if I wanted to play a podcast, I’d ask for it by title, and then remember to include the podcast moniker. Otherwise, the assistant won’t know which app to find to pull that media.

In theory, Bixby is supposed to be easier to control because you can talk to it in regular human syntax, without having to remember a particular order of commands. It works like this in some instances — cropping a photo, for example, or turning off the always-on display from the settings — but in some cases, it has no idea where to even begin. With Google Play Music, for example, Bixby had difficult understanding I wanted it to play a podcast. I typically use Pocket Casts for this routine, but seeing as how it’s not yet compatible with the Bixby Voice preview, I had to choose the road less traveled. That route got me nowhere, though, and I ended up tapping around to start playback myself.

The Bixby button

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The Galaxy S8/S8+’s new Bixby button has been a hot topic lately, partially because there are many people out there who’d rather re-map it to do something else. I can understand why Samsung would want to discourage that, however, because that button is a significant part of the Bixby experience.

I can’t tell you how many times Google Assistant has failed to launch when I’ve uttered the command, even as I was holding it a mere few inches from my face. Because of this, I deactivated the ability to call up Assistant from either my smartphones and left that bidding to the two Google Home units in my house. At present, I only use Assistant to control my home, not to interact with my devices.

Even in its beta state, Bixby is easier to use to call on than Google Assistant.

In its beta state, Bixby is easier to use to call on than Google Assistant, even when I’m muttering. As I’m whispering to myself as I’m typing this up, it’s hearing its name and asking what it can do to help. Google would do the same, sure, but when it doesn’t hear you, there’s no alternative besides unlocking the phone and tapping around. That’s exactly where the Bixby button comes in handy.

Remember the Nextel days of yore, when you could push to talk to a friend on the same cellular network? The side button on the Galaxy S8 is effectively Bixby’s push-to-talk. You can use it with the screen off, or press it while you’re inside a compatible app to control it with just your voice. You don’t have to say “Hey, Bixby!” every time you use the phone, and you don’t have to specify the app for your command.

There’s something weirdly organic about pressing a button to talk to your phone, too — like sitting in Knight Rider’s seat, maybe? Honestly, I was too young to watch the series, but I’d imagine that feeling of being physically connected to an electronic device does something to our brains. Whatever it is, it’s what makes pressing the button second nature. Samsung should probably allow remapping until it’s officially launched, though, because without the aid of Bixby Voice it’s just a useless button.

There’s plenty of work left to do

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The fact that Bixby Voice has been significantly delayed has already done plenty to sour its arrival to the world, and that’s a major shame. I see what Samsung is attempting to do here, beyond what it described in its original press release; it’s hoping to market its personable, contextual digital assistant as a compliment to Google Assistant’s robust search capabilities, rather than a replacement. Ironically, it doesn’t yet do that because it’s struggling with syntax — how can something understand the context if it can’t even verify the order of words?

Bixby Voice is not at its best in its beta state, but I still enjoyed interacting with it more than I typically do with Google Assistant precisely because it’s conversational. Hopefully, this preview period will help it get its grip on the English language. Bixby Voice is the sort of digital assistant that Android needs, and if it doesn’t take off, it can at least set an example. I imagine the pressure is on to get this product out before Google figures it all out.

Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+

  • Galaxy S8 and S8+ review!
  • Galaxy S8 and S8+ specs
  • Everything you need to know about the Galaxy S8’s cameras
  • Get to know Samsung Bixby
  • Join our Galaxy S8 forums

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