Hey Google Assistant

Just like last year, we’ve put together an end-of-year recap of all the major features that Google Assistant and Google Home launched in 2021.

Google Assistant on mobile

Visually, the new Google Assistant (NGA), which remains limited to the Pixel 4 and newer devices, lost its original translucent design for a short panel that just reads “Hi, how can I help?” with a button to switch to keyboard input. The Snapshot shortcut was frustratingly removed, with the only update to that feed this year being the ability to favorite and pin cards/reminders.

Google did test a shorter panel on non-NGA devices that saw Lens serve as a “What’s on my screen?” replacement, but that design did not launch. The other change was Material You Dynamic Color theming for the Assistant sheet on Android 12.

Under-the-hood, just before I/O 2021 Google touted how Assistant’s natural language understanding models were “fully rebuilt” using BERT to better understand context, “what you’re trying to do with a command,” and improve accuracy, especially for alarm/timer tasks.  

Google will understand instructions like “set a timer for 5, no wait, 9 minutes.” In the past, Assistant would create a 5-minute timer, but now it sets the desired 9-minute countdown. Similarly, “make the alarm one hour later” edits a current alarm rather than creating an entirely new one. Lastly, users can ask for and control timers without needing to remember the exact title they gave it, thanks to approximate name matching.

BERT also improved conversation quality by increasing awareness of your previous query and what’s on-screen, while Assistant became able to save custom contact pronunciations.

Similarly, Google used federated learning on Android to improve “Hey Google” accuracy, with users able to turn the feature on from Assistant settings > Help improve Assistant. Certain hotword activations started being accompanied by phone notifications asking whether the right device picked up.

Assistant settings added standalone pages for Communication, Your apps, Lock screen, Accessibility, and Photos, and preferences for Voice Match and Personal results were split by device type.

In terms of new features in 2021, the Pixel 6 saw the launch of Google Assistant voice typing after “enhanced voice typing” testing earlier in the year on all NGA phones. The new Google phones also gained “Quick phrases” that let you skip the hotword to answer calls and stop alarms, while At a Glance was brought into closer alignment with Google Assistant. Lastly, Assistant on Pixel phones running Android 12 shifted to launch by long-pressing the power button.

All devices saw lockscreen commands gain glanceable cards, and Assistant improved its compatibility with Workspace accounts on mobile and later Smart Displays/speakers. Family features like Broadcasts and Bells started appearing on phones, while Duplex – Google’s name for technology that speeds up interactions – picked up more capabilities. This included support for online food orders, “Fast checkout” at stores, and changing stolen passwords in Chrome for Android, as well as Smart Display support.

Rounding out the list, Google used Assistant to offer Home Mini and Nest Hub discounts but stopped offering Cameo Voices. Looking ahead, Android widgets will soon be able to appear in Assistant and possibly Android Auto. 

Speaking of cars, one of the biggest Assistant expansions was on the road with the full launch of Driving Mode. In 2020, it began appearing in Google Maps, but it’s now part of the Google app with a homescreen that was first promised at I/O 2019. The changes included Bluetooth auto-launch and a homescreen shortcut as the old “Android Auto for Phone Screens” experience is disappearing on Android 12. “Hey Google, pay for gas” is slowly rolling out, and there are now lightweight HTML5 games on Android Auto.

Google Assistant at home

Outside of Assistant’s mobile instances, Google introduced Daylong Routines, programmable start delays, the ability for your macros to initiate after an alarm is dismissed, and Home & Away Routines triggers for when you arrive/leave a specified location.

Assistant in the home is of course closely tied to Smart Displays. The biggest development was the launch of Fuchsia to replace Cast OS on the first-generation Home/Nest Hub. There were only minor bugs, and it was a huge technical accomplishment to replace an operating system at scale. 

Another addition that made waves for bringing oodles of delight was the wider availability of the “Weather Frog” clock face with more developments possibly en route. However, “experimental” Facebook and Flickr photo frames disappeared at the start of this year. Speaking of weather, the Nest Hub started showing Air Quality (AQI) info

There was also a new alarm experience that added a Sunrise option, more sounds, and controls, as well as “app” launcher, richer browser with keyboard, and new Casting tone.

Smaller Home features added in 2021 included a dedicated Games tab, a Google Photos “Memories” card, and direct/bulk image sharing. Google also improved Spanish interface support and expanded Guest Mode availability.

For 2022, Google announced that its Home/Nest/Wifi devices would add support for the Matter smart home standard to improve interoperability. This includes Android via Play services for better control and a Fast Pair-like UI for set-up.

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About the Author

Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: abner@9to5g.com