Work from Home with Siri, Alexa and Google: The Silent Listeners

Was it your partner, whispering “I love you” into your – what turns out – active meeting headset? Or your three year old, opening the door to your bedroom/office only to tell you that she pooped in her underwear? Maybe it was your cat, scrolling through your screen to find the hidden bug? Or maybe your dog, leaving a nasty smell next to your notebook? But, maybe it was just you, forgetting that you’re not on mute?

So many things can happen when we work from home. But following can surprise even the biggest voice assistant fan: when Siri, Alexa or Google verbally interrupt us during our online meetings and calls.

In this post we will look into how this can happen and our options to control it. We will focus on a little known feature: being able to hear, when Siri, Alexa and Google are listening to us.

In the Beginning was the Wake Word

The wake word is just a fancy name for the familiar phrase we need to say to wake up our voice assistants:

  • Alexa, …
  • Hey Siri, …
  • Ok Google, …

Our voice assistants are continuously listening for their wake words – they process this locally on the device – and as soon as they hear them, they light up to indicate that they are awaiting our requests.

But sometimes they wake up for no apparent reason. They call it: false wakes.

And the Wake Word was in the Cloud

Wait, didn’t we say that wake words are processed locally? Yes they are, but the whole request, including the wake word is then analyzed in the Amazon, Google or Apple cloud. How else can they improve the wake word detection for us, or identify which of the numerous devices across our home should reply to our request?

The clouds check again if our voice assistants misheard a wake word and if yes, simply tell them to stop listening. The lights of our voice assistant silently go out, like nothing happened.

In fact, if you’ve placed your voice assistant where you can’t see it’s display or lights, you won’t notice that your voice assistant started listening, listened for a while and then stopped listening. Unless you check regularly what your voice assistant has recorded.

Despite all this ever improving wake word wizardry, Siri, Alexa and Google will still surprise us from time to time with false wakes and unexpected responses.

And Suddenly there came a Sound

There’s a little known feature, which can help us to ease any concerns we might have, when working from home around Siri, Alexa and Google. As basic as this feature literally sounds, it is unfortunately not active by default. We need to turn it on: a sound when our voice assistant starts and stops listening.

Once we’ve activated this feature, there’s no need to change the way we’re used to talk to our voice assistants. We don’t need to pause after the wake word, until we hear the sound. We can still speak the full request and Siri, Alexa and Google will understand us.

And the Sound created Trust

You might not feel like 41% of voice assistant users, which are concerned that their voice assistant actively listens and records their private conversations (Microsoft’s 2019 Voice Report). But you might feel different working from home and having professional conversations (Bloomberg).

You might trust the voice industry that there’s only a small number of false wakes, or you might trust studies which count up to 19 times in 24 hours (when listening to Netflix).

However you feel and whomever you trust, you will not know your personal truth until you turn the wake word sound on. Once this feature is active, Siri, Alexa and Google will let you hear, when they are listening.

If you’re in the middle of a private conversation, and you hear the wake word sound, just pause briefly until you hear them stop listening.

How to enable Siri’s Wake Word Sound

Apple Home app / HomePod settings – Sound when using Siri

On your iPhone Siri’s wake word sound is enabled by default. Siri has independent volume settings. To change the volume of Siri’s voice and the wake word sound, just ask Siri something and press the Volume buttons on the side of your iPhone when Siri is speaking.

To enable Siri’s wake word sound on a HomePod:

  1. Open Apple’s Home app
  2. Tap and and Hold the HomePod button
  3. Scroll down to open Settings
  4. Enable “Sound When using Siri”

Please note, currently (software version 13.4), the HomePod will only play a sound at the start of a request. Actually, two seconds later. You won’t be able to hear when Siri stops listening.

More information from Apple: How to change the Siri volume

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How to enable Alexa’s Wake Word Sound

We can enable Alexa’s wake word sound in the Alexa app:

Alexa App / Amazon Echo Device Settings – Request Sounds
  1. Open the Alexa app
  2. Tap on the menu at the top left
  3. Select “Settings” and then “Device Settings”
  4. Scroll down and tap on your Amazon Echo device
  5. Tap on Sounds
  6. Enable “Start of Request” and “End of Request”
  7. Repeat for every Amazon Echo device

On an Amazon Echo Show, we can enable this feature on screen:

  1. Swipe down on the home screen
  2. Tap on Settings at the top right
  3. Tap on Sounds
  4. Enable “Start of Request” and “End of Request”

 

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How to enable Google’s Wake Word Sound

Ok, this is weird but works for us: to enable Google’s wake word sound on an Android phone (Pixel in our case)

  1. Open the Android Settings
  2. Tap on Accessibility
  3. Enable “Switch Access”
  4. Tap Exit

We can enable Google’s wake word sound for Google Home, Google Nest and Google Nest Hub devices in the Google Home app:

Google Home app – Google Home/Nest Settings – Start and End Sound
  1. Open your Google Home app
  2. Tap on your Google Home / Nest / Hub device
  3. Tap on Settings at the top right
  4. Tap on “Accessibility”
  5. Enable “Play start sound” and “Play end sound”
  6. Repeat for every Google Home / Nest / Hub device

 

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But, what if not?

Now, that we’re finally hearing them, we hear them more often than we would have expected?
This can happen, so let’s list the options we have (with ascending paranoia):

Train your Voice Assistant

An option to improve the wake word recognition is to train the voice assistant. This takes a little, but is well worth the time.

Mute your Voice Assistant

If you still hear too many wake word sounds, you might decide that for some activities you better mute your voice assistant. In our case we have to do this when we listen to voice industry podcasts and videos. There are still so many wake words out there in audio and video, you wouldn’t believe it.

  • Siri: on a HomePod just say “Hey Siri, stop listening”, to re-enable, check the Home app HomePod settings and enable “Listen for Hey Siri”.
  • Alexa: press the mute button on the Amazon Echo device. A red circle will appear on the Amazon Echo, a red line at the bottom of Amazon Echo Show displays.
  • Google: press the mute button at the back of your Google Home or slide the mute button on your Google Home / Nest Mini or Google Nest Hub devices.

Review your Voice Recordings

Things happen, voice industry privacy options improve over time, but some of our historical recordings remain in the cloud. It’s good to review your recordings from time to time. If you find some that don’t belong there, delete them.

Control your Privacy with Voice

If you prefer to micro manage your voice assistant privacy, we have now a bunch of privacy related voice commands for some of our voice assistants:

Unplug your Voice Assistant

Not sure, why someone would prefer to pull the plug, rather than pressing a button. But if you’re this kind of person, we can’t hold you back. Just, please don’t forget to plug Siri, Alexa and Google back in, when you’re done. Thank you!

Conclusion

What’s the difference between Siri on an iPhone and Google Assistant on a Pixel smart phone? 

If you say “Hey Siri” you’ll hear the familiar “di-ding” wake word sound, indicating that she is listening, even when your iPhone is on mute. If you say “Hey Google” you’ll hear nothing, but your Google Assistant will be silently listening.

What Google offers as default setting on their Pixel smartphone and all their Google Home / Nest / Hub devices, Apple and Amazon provide as default on their HomePod and all the Amazon Echo devices: Siri, Alexa and Google, the silent listeners.

Who would have thought, that a simple sound when their microphone goes on, could create trust? Or, at least transparency? What if this feature would have been available by default, on every voice assistant device? Would we trust our voice assistants more?

Well, we’ll never know, until you try it and let us know in the comment section below.

Happy Wake Word Sounds!

P.S. For some work from home music, please see:

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