Last month I wrote about an upgrade to Google Now that enables users to activate the search giant's personal digital assistant by saying "OK Google" from any screen on their devices. Until then, you had to make sure the Google Now microphone icon was visible in order to use Google Now, which somewhat defeated the purpose of voice activation because it forced you to use your hands.
That change by Google eliminated one of the shortcomings of an otherwise solid and rapidly improving technology. Now a third-party app created by a high school student takes Google Now even further down the road toward voice-activated personal digital assistant perfection.
Commandr for Google Now dramatically expands how Google Now can control your device. Created over the summer by Ryan Senanayake, a 16-year-old high school senior in the Seattle area, Commandr enables Google Now to:
- Turn on/off wi-fi, Bluetooth, cellular data and GPS
- Pause and resume music
- Play the next song or previous song
- Read aloud unread messages and Gmail
- Raise and lower volume, or set it as a percentage
- Lock and unlock your device
- Take a picture or a selfie
These are things that Google Now (for now and as far as I can tell) doesn't do on its own. For example, if I say, "OK Google, turn off wi-fi," it will merely open up my wi-fi settings. Same with Bluetooth. And if I say, "OK Google, turn off mobile data," it will give me a page of Google search returns with instructions for performing that task. Similarly, if I ask Google Now to turn on my smartphone's flashlight, it will take me to a flashlight app in Google Play.
Commandr works by "listening" to Google Now via an accessibility service. (Commandr will not store any information entered into Google Now, according to Senanayake.)
To get started, you have to activate the accessibility service in Commandr's Settings. Once that's done, tap on Built-In Commands within Settings and you'll see a long list of specific commands for Google Now to perform, along with a toggle button if you'd like to disable some of them. (But why would you?) You'll also see a "Vote for New Commands" option at the bottom, as well as "Suggest New Command."
There's another item in Settings called "Tasker Commands" that's optional and requires you to download an automation app for $2.99. It looks intriguing, but I'll save it for another day. (Also, in response to Ryan's message that "he's trying to help pay for college," I left the "Show Ads" box in Settings checked. As the father of a freshman, I feel Ryan's pain.)
Once Commandr is all set up, it's easy to try out and easy to get used to. I ran right through the list above, saying "OK Google" and then the specific request, and Commandr performed well -- though not perfectly.
Sometimes Commandr would do what Google Now always has done: Delivered a search page or open a setting instead of taking an action. One thing I still can't get it to do is lock (and unlock) my phone with an "OK Google" command.
The vast majority of the time, however, it worked as advertised. Opening and closing data ports, manipulating volume, pausing and resuming music, taking pictures (with a three-second countdown), even reading aloud text messages -- Commandr worked with Google Now to consistently and successfully act on my commands.
There are little tricks to learn. Asking for an increase or decrease in volume is imprecise, so Commandr can only open the volume settings for you. But asking for a specific volume percentage gives it actionable information.
Commandr promises more voice-activated Google Now commands, based on user input. Right now the leading vote-getters, with more than 10,000 each, are "last text from" (reads last text from the specified contact), "clear notifications," and "toggling a wi-fi hotspot." Not exactly visionary suggestions, but there's nothing wrong with functional.