Monday, November 28, 2011

Siri understands intent, beats Google Voice Actions, Tellme, and Vlingo

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Summary: Siri is the talk of the town at the moment and here you can see how it compares to other platforms and a cross platform service. Siri still beats them all handily.

Likely one of the most compelling features of the new Apple iPhone 4S is the Siri personal assistant functionality. While we have seen voice control and voice to text before, I think Siri really sets itself apart with the “common language” interaction and conversational understanding of user intent. That said, it is still a beta and there are some basic features that it lacks. The popularity of Siri has given other platforms and solutions some much needed attention and I thought you might want to hear a bit more about Siri and those other available solutions.

Siri is only available at this time on the new Apple iPhone 4S and requires a connection to perform even the most basic function. I disconnected from the network and the utility is worthless. You also have to rely on the Apple server being up and running and as I pointed out a few days ago you may have to reset your connection if things get overloaded. I imagine as the novelty wears off a bit that the server load will go down and we won’t have so many times where Siri is offline.

I have used the other voice services discussed in this post, but Siri stands apart with the ability to interact with natural speaking and is also one of the sassiest programs I have ever interacted with as it talks back to you as well. I am sure many people did what I did and tried swearing at Siri and saying other dumb things to see what the reaction was and you can go visit this Siri sample site to see some funny responses.

There is no speech learning required to use Siri and it’s smart enough to carry on a conversation so you can move to setting a reminder and then having Siri adjust it back another hour if you change your mind during the conversation. You really need to try it to see what it can do. Here is a list of things Siri can do, simply ask “What can I say?” to see this list on your iPhone 4S:

Call people or numbersPlay songs stored on your iPhoneText peopleSetup meetingsSetup remindersAsk for directionsEmail peopleFind out stock pricesSet alarmsAsk for address info from your contact listFind your friends using the Find My Friends utilityCreate notesGet answers to calculations and trivia via Wolfram AlphaSearch the InternetVoice to text: Mic icon appears like on Android and even this requires a data connection.

As I mentioned, Siri lets you hold “real” conversations so you can create a note with one item and then pause in between each item to add as a bullet to a note in an ongoing conversation. You can ask Siri what your schedule is for today, the week, or more with questions such as “What’s next for me?” I use my phone for my alarms and tend to vary my wake up time on a regular basis. I hated going through several steps to set these up and now I just tell Siri to wake me at 4:15 am and am done. Siri also supports location-based services, being referred to by people as a geo-fence, so you can have a reminder go off when you get to a certain location, such as “Remind me to call the dentist when I get home.”

Here are a list of things that Siri cannot yet do:

Launch applications: I tend to load up quite a few and have them embedded in folders.Give better driving directions: Only basic Google Maps is provided for directions and Apple needs to either provide a better service or allow 3rd party vendors like Navigon to tie into Siri.List the songs in your music collection to choose what to playRead you your search results: Siri still requires you to look at your display for many results.

Google Voice Actions has been around for a while on Android 2.2 devices and is quite good too. It doesn’t have the intelligence to carry on a conversation like Siri, but it can perform nearly all of the same functions as Siri. The voice to text capability is pretty accurate and the navigation is world’s better thanks to Google Maps Navigation integration. Here is a list of things Google Voice Actions can do:

Call people or numbersPlay songs, including through 3rd party streaming music servicesText peopleAsk for directionsEmail peopleAsk for address info from your contact listCreate notesSearch the InternetVoice to text: Mic icon appears in keyboard

As you can see there are no voice actions for reminders and appointments, which actually tend to be the ones I am using most on my new iPhone 4S as it saves several steps. There is also no conversational support so Google Voice Actions won’t remember what we have been talking about to refine the intended action like Siri does.

Microsoft purchased Tellme and then integrated the technology into Windows Phone 7. I wrote up a recent post where I was blown away by the ability to carry on a text messaging conversation with my daughter through a Bluetooth headset without ever once touching my Windows Phone 7 device. That was before I had the chance to try out Siri on the Apple iPhone 4S.

Here are the things you can do with a Windows Phone 7 device:

Call people or numbersSearch the Internet through BingOpen applicationsText peopleMap addressesInitiate calls to others or press numbers during a phone callEase of access functions (such as setup speed dial)

As you can see, as amazing as Windows Phone 7’s Tellme technology is for communications and search, it doesn’t go much further than that. There is no text to speech functionality, except within text messaging. There is a lot of work to do by Microsoft to compete with the others in voice, but they do have a solid foundation and a powerful technology with Tellme. As the folks at Pocketnow posted Windows Phone will eventually get functionality like Siri.

To use Siri you have to be an Apple iPhone 4S owner, but if you have an older iPhone you are not left out if you look to apps such as Vlingo, which has actually seen a major increase in interest thanks to the coverage of Siri. I have used Vlingo before on Android before Voice Actions and the great things about Vlingo is that it is cross platform and works on iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Nokia, and the older Windows Mobile devices.

Vlingo does a great job of tying into apps on the platforms and providing voice to text functionality. Unlike Siri, it is not conversational. It is natural though and does not require any kind of voice training or anything. With Vlingo you can perform the following types of actions:

Call people or numbersUpdate your Facebook or Twitter statusPlay songs stored on your iPhoneText peopleAsk for directionsEmail peopleCreate notesSearch the InternetOpen applicationsVoice to text

Vlingo functions much like Google Voice Actions, except it works on multiple platforms. It is very powerful and you should check it out if you don’t have an iPhone 4S.

I was starting to put together a table to compare these different platforms and services, but I think it is actually quite easy to compare and contrast Siri with the rest. Google Voice Actions, Windows Phone 7, and Vlingo are all very similar and the only real big functional advantage they have over Siri is the ability to launch applications. Other than that, Siri beats all the others with the conversational nature of the utility that helps refine actions and make your life easier. Some of what Siri does actually helps ease my concern with a smaller display on the iPhone 4S compared to the Android and Windows Phone 7 big 4.3 inch devices. All of these services require data connections to perform so that is an inherent weakness with these voice recognition and assistant programs.

People who have not tried Siri really cannot understand the power and capability of it. Here is a sample conversation I had with Siri that shows how functional it really is:

Me: Play This Week in TechSiri: Now playing Twit 322: Damn you SiriMe: Play Twit 323Siri: Here’s Twit 323: There’s an App in my Lap

I then went on to make a couple of calls and after about 15 minutes I came back to Siri.

Me: Resume playing TwitSiri: OK…

I don’t know about you, but the ability of Siri to continue the conversation and understand my INTENT is simply amazing and revolutionary. I honestly think we are just starting to see the beginning of a new smartphone user paradigm and unlike many people who have said the novelty of Siri will wear off I think people will start using it more and more and then not be able to use phones that don’t provide such assistance.

Since Siri is so popular at the moment, there are several other writers who took a look at Siri and some of the competition so check out these other great articles:

Matthew Miller started using a Pilot 1000 in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since.

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