Bizhan Govindji: Siri who?

3 million people in the UK pre-ordered the iPhone 4S (that’s 5% of the population, by the way) and were eagerly awaiting a soft thud as it landed on their doormats this morning. The feature that’s quite literally got everybody talking isn’t the highly improved camera, or the potentially revolutionary iCloud; it’s Siri, your new virtual assistant. (If you haven’t heard of Siri, you’ll want to say goodbye to that rock you’ve been living under and watch the advert here). But Voice Recognition on mobile phones is hardly something new. In fact my first ever phone – the now-ancient Nokia 3310 –  came equipped with voice-activated dialling.

So why all the fuss about Siri, and what are the alternatives for non-iPhone users?

Siri

Demonstrations show Siri to be intelligent, useful, and polite. I’m an Android user myself, and Siri seems to be more conversational than the voice recognition programs I’ve played with on Android. But is this was users want? It seems that in our busy, working lives, time is of the essence, wouldn’t you agree? Extra phrases here and there may lead to delay and frustration (phrases like ‘wouldn’t you agree?’ or ‘here and there’ would be good examples). For instance: “I can’t answer that, but I could search the web for it, if you like.” could quite easily be replaced with “I don’t know, shall I search online?”

In any case, Apple have made an effort to raise the bar for voice recognition technology on smartphones, which will undoubtedly cause increased use of voice-activated apps, both on iPhones and elsewhere. Of course, this will partly be due to an immediate consensus that Apple have made voice recognition ‘cool’, but also because more people have been made aware of Siri, and voice recognition capabilities in general. Personally, I believe that the reason voice recognition hasn’t been more widely used previously is that not enough people knew what they could do with it. This becomes especially significant when the voice commands an app can understand are limited, so even your wording needs to be spot on. Or maybe nobody used it because they were scared of looking like a pompous douchebag (and yes, I’m referring to the guy in the Siri video barking commands while jogging).

Alternatives

For Android users, the default Google Voice Actions application is pretty decent. What’s especially impressive is that you can ask it to play a particular song/album/artist from your library, rather than just playing the entire library. Other worthy contenders include Vlingo (available on iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile and even Nokia), Edwin (limited but very conversational) and SpeakToIt Assistant (customisation to the max). [Pros and cons of all of the above can be found here]

If you’ve had a play with Siri today, or if you’ve tried out different voice recognition apps, leave a thought or two in the comments box.

Oh, and you probably want to know when it’s socially acceptable to yelp commands into your handset? On a train? No. Car? Yes. In a meeting? Depends. On the toilet? Yes if at home, but if it’s a public toilet then hell… wait for it… no. Consult Gizmodo’s full guide for a more comprehensive run-down on voice-based faux pas.


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