Google may be expanding the powers of its digital assistant for home devices and automotive accessories, but it hasn't forgotten about the smartphone. New features unveiled at CES in Las Vegas this week will let you access Google Assistant from your phone's lock screen, check into flights with your voice and more easily send text messages.
There's a common thread to the new phone-focused features coming to the Google Assistant, and it's consistent with other improvements Google's making to its digital helper. Google says it's looking to save users time by letting them do things more efficiently.
Use Assistant from the lock screen
That certainly seems to be the motivation behind the change likely to impact the most users — the ability to access the assistant without having to first unlock your phone. That extends functionality from Google's Pixel phones to the larger Android ecosystem, a Google rep told me, with any Android device capable of running Assistant being able to take advantage of the new feature.
You'll need to go into your phone's settings to turn on the ability to use the Assistant from your lock screen. (And you may decide to get that capability disabled for security reasons.) Once you do, you'll be able to set alarms, schedule reminders, check your calendar and other tasks you previously had to unlock your phone to access.
Checking into flights, booking rooms
Another time-saver coming to Google Assistant will be the ability to check into an upcoming flight with the virtual assistant's help. Google says the service rolls out to phones in the next few days, with United Airlines offering the feature first for domestic flights. Google expects other airlines to add support for the feature, too.
Saying "Google, check into my flight" will do the trick, presumably if you've got the flight stored on your calendar. You won't need to recite a confirmation number, and Google will even prompt you through the process of checking your bags.
In a related move, Google Assistant will also be able to book hotel rooms for you. Initial partners for that service include Choice Hotels, AccorHotels, InterContinental Hotels Group, Priceline, Mirai and Travelclick.
New features for messaging
Google's also making changes to how Google Assistant handles messaging. In a change that will be welcomed by grammar sticklers, the assistant now auto-punctuates text messages you dictate — a feature that will be available to both iOS and Android users.
If you're an Android user, you'll see the biggest changes to messaging via the assistant, which can now read and reply to all messaging notifications you get. On Android, Assistant will work with SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger, Hangouts, Viber, Telegram, Android Messages and others, though Google cautions that functionality will vary by service.
That ability to read out and reply to texts will come in handy now that you can access Google Assistant from the Google Maps app, hopefully reducing the risk of distracted driving. Since Google Maps already calculates your estimated time of arrival when you're driving, the Assistant now lets you text that arrival time to others, at least if you're using an Android device.
Google Keep gets Assistant support
Google is also adding assistant support for Google Keep, Any.do, Bring and Todoist so that you can manage notes and lists using the virtual assistant.
Working with the Assistant
Most of the features Google continues to add to its digital assistant are made possible by the search giant's ongoing work with machine learning, as it looks for ways to improve the assistant's understanding of natural language. In a demo here at CES today, Behshad Behzadi, the Distinguished Assistant for Google Assistant, explained that one of the challenges Google tries to tackle is acknowledging that there are different ways to ask for the same and information, and that the assistant needs to understand all of them. Asking "What's the weather like today?" should produce the same response as "Do I need a raincoat?" for example.
When you make a request, the Google Assistant must not only understand the language you're using and your speech, but it also has to recognize the intent of what you're asking and the context. And for the most part, it's up to the task. In his demo, Behzadi asked the assistant how tall Khloe Kardashian was and how tall her boyfriend was too. The assistant was able to recognize the compound question, look up the height of the aforementioned Kardashian and also figure out she's currently dating Tristan Thompson.