Google Assistant, which currently requires a smartphone, a smart device or a phone powered with something KaiOS, will now be available to Indian phone users through a toll-free number. People will be able to call the number and ask Assistant questions.
At its Google For India event, Google on Thursday announced that the Google Assistant will be available to some feature phone users in India through a toll-free number. The company said that users who have a Vodafone or Idea connection will be able to place a call to 000 800 9191 000 and then talk to Google Assistant in English or Hindi.
The conversations with Google Assistant on a phone will be similar to the conversations that users can do with the virtual assistant on smart devices like the Pixel phone or the Google Home speaker. In other words, even on the phone people will be able to ask Google for information — who is the prime minister of India or how far is the moon — and get answers.
The service is going to be free to use.
Google said that the “Vodafone-Idea Phone Line — supported by the Google Assistant enables Vodafone-Idea users to call a single number free of charge (000 800 9191000), at any time, and ask for everything from sports scores, traffic conditions and weather forecasts or simply get help with homework. No need for a data or internet connection. And users can call free-of-charge, any time of day or night.”
Manuel Bronstein, Vice President, Product Management at Google, told India Today Tech that for the Phone Line service, the back-end will be handled jointly by Google and Vodafone. The infrastructure for calls and phone support obviously comes from Vodafone-Idea while Google takes care of the Assistant once the call placed by a user connects to internet at the backend. “The conversations are real-time and feel incredibly natural. It’s like talking to someone on the phone,” said Bronstein.
Before launching the service, Google did a pilot for it. “Thousands of users across Lucknow and Kanpur have tried the Phone Line, and asked about things like sports scores, weather forecasts, the news, and traffic conditions. The service is available free-of charge to all Vodafone-Idea users in India, and is available in Hindi and English,” said a Google spokesperson.
While the Phone Line seems slightly similar to Google Duplex, a phone-based AI system that the company had announced earlier and which for now is only available in select regions in the US, it is actually a simpler service.
Working with a telecom company — in this case Vodafone-Idea — Google has simply connected its virtual assistant network with the 2G voice network at the backend so that users can get the real-time information by making a toll-free call. In other words, think of it as a feature that is similar to the SMS-based information services that telecom companies used to run years ago. Users would send an SMS with certain keyword or phrase and in return would get some information. Here, instead of SMS, Google and Vodafone are using voice as a medium of communications.