What is Google Voice and Why is it Great for Teachers?

Telephone operators, 1952

Google Voice started out as Grand Central, a call routing service that a few bright guys (Craig Walker & Vincent Paquet) started a few years ago. Google saw the opportunity to disrupt the telecom world with Grand Central, and snatched it up. So what is it? Basically Google Voice is an independent call router and voicemail system. I'm going to give a brief overview and tell you how I use it.

It's a Number Without a Phone

The idea is that instead of having a phone with an "attached" number (the traditional way of doing things), Google Voice gives you only the number (for life, and for free!), and that number is completely independent. It does not "reside" on a device. Does that have you scratching your head? Read on.

When someone dials your GV number, many things can happen from that point. For example:

1. Google recognizes the incoming call as being from your mother and passes it through to ring your home phone, mobile phone, and work phone, all at the same time so you are sure to get the call. Or calls from your friends only ring your mobile and home numbers, but never your work phone. Whatever you want. You can have up to six different numbers ring when you get a call, in any combination depending upon the rules you create on the Google Voice website. I put my Google Voice number on my syllabi so parents and teachers can reach me. Much better than an office phone (and for those of you who share an office phone, this is a great solution).

2, If you choose, Google will send all callers of a certain type straight to voicemail if you so choose. For example, all unrecognized callers, or calls from that friend of yours that always results in a thirty-minute conversation. ;-)

3. Google receives a call from a pesky sales person that you have identified, and you will never hear from that person again. Their voicemail goes to your junk box. Or you can block that number completely and the sales person will get an "out of service" message. How often have you wanted that for your landline or mobile number?

4. Different Outgoing Greetings: People you have tagged as "friends" or "family" hear an informal voicemail greeting from you ("Hey what's up? Leave me a message) whereas calls from your students' parents get a different greeting (Hello this is Mr. Robertson, sorry I wasn't available for your call, I'll get back to you as soon as I can).

Call Screening

When you "take" a call, you don't have to be connected with your caller. You have the option to listen in to messages as they are being left (call screening). It's a very cool feature to have when you are out and about (same as listening to your old message machine at home). Sometimes you can't or don't want to take a call, but you don't want to wait for the voicemail to come in either. Screening is the perfect solution. GV also lets you break in and take the call while the person is leaving a message if you so choose. You can also send calls directly to voicemail after Google tells you who is on the line.

Call Translation

After Google purchased Grand Central, they added voice translation. I have found this to be a great feature. Say you are at a meeting where you can listen to voicemail. Google sends you a text translation of the message as email. I have to say, it works great. Not perfectly, but it usually gets 95% right, enough to know what the call was about. You also get the voicemail as an audio attachment. All of your voicemail is available on the GV webpage as well, where you can review, add the caller to contacts, etc. Basically you never have to write down message details again. Much like gmail, Google has plenty of storage so you never need to delete your messages.

Number Permanence

I really like the idea of having a number that stays with me. There are many cases where I don't want to give out my mobile or home number. Or have you gone through the ordeal of getting a new phone number and trying to notify everyone? With Google Voice it doesn't matter if you get a new office number, mobile number, or drop your land line number. You simply give everyone your GV number. Since I have the spam options on GV, I don't hesitate to give it out. I give out my GV number for all business transactions (utilities, comcast, etc.). I don't want those companies having my mobile number, and now it's never necessary.

Call Routing

Basically Google is acting as a call routing system. Somebody calls your GV number, and then Google switches the call wherever you need it to go. You also use it to make calls so that your caller will see the call as coming from your Google Voice number rather than your mobile, office number, etc.

For example, when you are listening to voicemail you can return the call by pressing the number 2. When you do, GV dials the person's number so that they see your GV number, not your mobile or wherever you are listening to your voicemails. Then Google connects the call to that phone. Another use: You can put a "call me" button on your website. People can call you without even knowing your GV number at all! They press the button, enter their number, and Google calls you both and connects the call. Slick!

Google also added SMS and international calling. SMS is totally free (and unlimited).

Should You Get It?

As you can see, Grand Central was a very forward looking idea. Google was wise to buy it out. Add on top of that the things Google has added and you have a very disruptive technology. It has been working perfectly for me. When people call my number at school, I have changed my outgoing message asking them to write down my Google Voice number and use it exclusively. This way I don't have people leaving messages for me on the school's outdated voicemail system. For those of you who have newer voicemail systems at school (for example the type that emails you the message) Google Voice may not be a high priority. But for me it has been great. No more dialing into the school system and pressing buttons to navigate about. I just hit the Google Voice website.

Other uses might include obtaining a Google Voice number for your parents organization. There are times when your parents don't want their personal phone numbers being used. Google Voice could be the perfect solution. You could also grab a Google Voice number to serve as a ticket or special event hotline. Possibilities are endless.

Google Voice requires a gmail account and you must request an invite. Go to: http://voice.google.com

UPDATE: There's an app for that! The Google Voice app works great on the iPhone and Android. And you can also port your home number to GV and ditch the land line if you like!

Infinitec officially launches IUM ad hoc streaming device: ships in July for $129 -- Engadget

So... you have a movie on your personal laptop and want to show it in class. Do you (a) email the huge file so you can download it to the computer that is attached to the LCD projector, or (b) hook up your personal computer to your LCD projector (wasting valuable time) or (c) stream the media from your personal laptop to the computer that is already hooked up to your LCD projector?

I'm going with C, and for about $129.

Best In-Ear Headphones for the Buck

A few weeks ago I bought the Klipsch Image S4 Headphones. They retail for $79.99, and I haven't really seen them discounted anywhere, which was one indication that they are selling well and worth the price. They may not sound as perfect as some of those $300 models from Sure, Monster, and Klipsch, but for my money they are very close. The bass response is clear and the highs are not harsh. I would certainly suggest you check them out. They provide three different ear pieces so you can get a comfortable fit and block external noise.

Technology is a force, not a computer

Kevin Kelly of Wired gives a TED Talk on the history of technology. This is a "must watch" for anyone who thinks they understand what technology is, where it has been, and where it is going. It is especially pertinent for music educators who can't get any technology funding unless it involves a computer or something else that "plugs in." We must learn how to educate the holders of the purse strings so they understand how something like Remo's Renaissance Hazy timpani heads represent a technological advancement that changes the learning environment for the better, or proper acoustical treatment of a rehearsal room.

Send Group Messages via Email, SMS, or Voice Phone for Free | SendGM

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This morning I was doing some searching for sms-based online polling (clickers are too expensive and oh-so-20th century). PollEverywhere looks great, but I also happened to stumble on this notification service called SendGM. It does basic polling, but its real forte is notification.

You enter contact information into your account, and from there you can assign the contacts to any combination of groups. The real power comes in the types of notifications that SendGM can provide. It will send any combination of email, sms, and text-to-voice notifications based on the contact info for each person. You can also request replies from the contacts (hence the polling feature).

The free account handles up to 25 users, but the next level (100) is only $79 per year. Not bad. I like that it is a more private, controlled, and flexible system than Twitter. This could be the ultimate school group notification system, especially for travel.

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E-MU PIPEline: Wireless audio with low latency

Recently I wrote about the Sony Blutetooth receiver/transmitter. One thing that I don't like about using Bluetooth is the latency. For example, I have a midi keyboard as part of my teaching station and I really can't use it to play in time because the Bluetooth is delayed. Audio is therefore also out of sync if I project videos from the LCD projector that is on my cart.

This solution does not use Bluetooth so you can't pair your iPhone or Touch to it, but if you use a recording/teaching cart and want to funnel the output of your D/A converter wirelessly to your stereo, this looks like a great solution. It was designed for allowing guitarists to go wireless, as well as an in-ear monitoring system, so the latency specs (under six milliseconds) are excellent. These units can also run off an internal rechargeable battery for about five hours. $99 bucks, and you'll need two. Range of almost 50 feet, so better than Bluetooth in that regard as well.

What is lala.com and why should I care?

A few months ago I heard a rumor that Apple was thinking about buying a music streaming site called lala.com. Well, I had never heard of it, so I spent the next few days checking it out. They have since acquired it (mainly to get the talented programmers folded into the iTunes team) but it is still up and running.

You need to check it out too, and I'll tell you why. Do any of these things interest you?

1. You can put your entire digital library online for FREE and listen to it from any computer.

2. You can preview new music in its entirety rather than just a 30 second clip.

3. You can buy streaming rights (they call it a "Web Song") to new music for one thin dime and listen via the web whenever you like.

4. You can also download songs for 89 cents. 79 if you already own the Web Song.

5. You can link to your friends and get/make suggestions about different music.

6. You can make a playlist and embed that list onto any website where people can listen to the entire list (once) for FREE.

Sound unique? It is, and clearly there are some ideas here that interest the likes of Apple. Who knows what Apple will decide to do with their new acquisition, but I decided to dive in.

I have to tell you, it's great having access to my entire library online. Lala has an app called the "Music Mover." Basically it looks at your collection and matches it to its licensed catalog. Anything they already have is linked to your account, and (here's the cool part) anything they don't have gets uploaded and hosted. No limitations, no cost. That is pretty sweet.

The embedding feature is great. Recently my colleague and I embedded some recordings of pieces we are starting to work on in our rehearsals (example above). You can see the embeddable players on our website. This is a great way for the students to at least hear the music one time (after the full listen, they get the traditional 30 second clip). And of course if the kids want to purchase, it's only a dime for the streaming version. If you've been trying to convince your students to "do the right thing" by purchasing the recordings of the music you are working on at school, purchasing streams at one tenth the cost of mp3's is a pretty nice alternative.

I think this Web Song idea has some promise. Think about it, for 100 bucks you can get 100 songs from iTunes, or you can get 1,000 Web Songs. Sometimes you might want the download, but I think the streaming version can be a great (and extremely economical) option. I don't know if Apple will keep the feature (or the site for that matter) but for now I'm finding it to be really helpful.

Anyway, head on over to lala.com and check it out. I'm "Brian W." on lala if you want to look me up.

Have an iPod Touch or iPhone? You can stream from the podium with Bluetooth

Is the stereo in your rehearsal room located too far from your podium? If it is you probably don't use reference recordings and a rehearsal metronome as often as you should. Well if you have an iPod Touch/iPhone and about fifty bucks, you can stream music and metronome from your podium to your stereo. All you need is this device from Sony: The HWS-BTA2W ... catchy name, very easy to remember.

This little device (only about two inches high) is a Bluetooth receiver. Simply plug it in, connect the audio output to your stereo, then "pair" it with your iPod Touch/iPhone. Pairing works just like pairing a Bluetooth ear piece. Just like that, you will be able to stream the audio output of your iPod/iPhone from just about anywhere in the room. No time wasted walking over to the stereo. You can stop/start the metronome instantly (I like "Tempo" or "Dr. Betotte"), or pull up a reference recording on the spot. Pretty cool right?

Another nice feature: You can also transmit audio with these Sony devices, and they will pair with one another. So with two of these (one set to transmit, and one to receive) you can send audio wirelessly from anything that has a headphone jack, so you're not limited to devices with built in Bluetooth like the iPod Touch/iPhone. The only catch is that the Sony device is not battery powered, so you would need AC at your podium if you wanted to use one as a transmitter.

Bluetooth has a range of about 30 feet, so it's not the solution to everything, but for those of us who have multiple rehearsal setups in the same room, this can be a real productivity enhancer, and it sure beats running a long audio cable across the floor.

Update: I forgot to mention that this can also be a nice way to stream from your Mac too, since Macs have Bluetooth audio profiles built in and you can easily pair it with the Sony. Comes in handy when your computer is not near the stereo. The Sony will pair with up to seven devices.

Twitter makes phone trees a thing of the past

Last spring as my wife was preparing to take her college choir on a trip across Europe, we were discussing how to keep in touch with the whole group easily. It is always a little nerve wracking when students are spread out across an airport terminal or sight seeing in a foreign country and the need arises to reach everyone. Time can really be of the essence in those situations, especially if the itinerary needs to change on a moments notice.

It occurred to me that Twitter might be a viable option for a mass contact tool. If you don't know much about Twitter, I'll explain it briefly as a service that people use for posting information, thoughts, or status updates. So it is basically like the status box in Facebook for those of you familiar with that feature. Twitter does a few other things, but not much. It really is focused on these brief 140 character updates, which are fondly referred to as "tweets."

Well, one of those "other things" that Twitter does is allow a user to receive updates from someone as a text message on their mobile phone. It was this feature that appealed to me, because it seemed to me that my wife could post one "tweet" and, provided all the students were "following" her, they would all receive the tweet instantly as a mobile text. We decided to try it. Over the next few weeks the students registered for Twitter, requested to be able to "follow" my wife's updates (which were set to private), and checked the box for receiving tweets from her via sms. Twitter sends a quick verification text to your mobile phone and then you're all set for getting tweets as sms. The whole process from registration to verification takes just a few minutes once you know the steps.

After a few tests stateside we were set. She ended up using this tool quite a bit, both in the various airports and across France and Austria. Any changes in plans were easily and instantly communicated to everyone. Worked like a charm, and sure beat trying to use a phone tree. If your groups travels a lot, it might be something you want to consider. If you students are younger and having Twitter accounts isn't a viable option, you could at least use it to communicate with your chaperones. It could also be a nice way to keep parents back home up to date as well. For example, you (the teacher) could have an account for communicating with the students and/or chaperones, and one chaperone could have an account for trip highlights that parents could subscribe to. In any case, let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to help if you want to give this a try.

UPDATE: I now recommend www.sendgm.com over using Twitter for mass sms.