When Apple launched the iPhone 4S and showed off the Siri feature, a lot of Android users weren’t so impressed – after all, the Android platform already had a fairly substantial integration of voice capabilities thanks to the Google tools included in the platform.
So, if you want to search something, just click on the microphone in the Google app or widget, and say your search term out loud. Or, you could open up the Navigation app, click the microphone and speak your destination out loud. Sure, the voice recognition wasn’t always 100% accurate, but it was good enough to seem almost magical for a while.
Where Siri upped the game was by acting as a general-purpose voice interface for the phone in addition to search. With just a few spoken words you could ask it to set a reminder, find out answers to trivia questions, or find a local restaurant. And to the amazement of many, Siri wasn’t above telling jokes.
Of course, Android app developers have developed apps that perform many of tasks that Siri has since added to the iPhone 4S. These apps include Speaktoit Assistant , Dexetra’s Iris, and True Knowledge’s newcomer, Evi. Each of these tackles the same task in slightly different ways, and each have their pros and cons, but in the end they all do the same thing: listen to you speaking, turn it into text, and then respond appropriately.
The slickest of the bunch is undoubtedly Speaktoit Assistant , which represents your assistant with a customizable avatar and voice, giving your assistant a bit more personality. There’s reasonably good interaction with other apps on the phone – for example you can say “send text message to Dave Webb my article is going to be a bit late” and it would look Dave up in your address book and then send him the message (much to his chagrin). When you say “goodbye”, the app says “goodbye” and then closes. But of the three, Assistant seems to have the worst sense of humor; while it can hit you with a Hitchhiker’s Guide reference or tell you why the chicken crossed the road, it seems to draw a blank on fun inquiries more often than the others. It’s mostly all business.
Iris, which is Siri backwards, has gotten both plaudits and brickbats from the general public. Using the human-powered ChaCha search engine to provide answer to queries has allowed Iris to provide some great replies (including some pretty sharp answers to jokes), but it’s also bombed on occasion, with replies that have been seen as racist or controversial. ChaCha has already gone to work tweaking things so the returned answers are more neutral or balanced.
After that, Iris’s biggest downside is the lack of customization – it answers in a robotic voice, and all you see on the screen is a little blue light reminiscent of HAL from 2001. But it does integrate with other apps, switching to a map view when you ask for a local gas station, for example. On the other hand, it does return some strange answers; the request “where is the closest Starbucks?” returned the cryptic reply “The closest starbucks? Where is it?” If I knew THAT, I wouldn’t have asked, Iris!
The new kid on the block, Evi, has a similarly basic interface – click the microphone at the bottom, and it will return your response in the window above, accompanied by a robotic voice. Like Siri, the Evi interface will return a list of more than one answer if you’re asking for nearby items. However, it can be frustrating sometimes, as Evi doesn’t seem to have a complete database of businesses and locations – even though there’s a gas station a block away from me, Evi doesn’t know it’s there…one can only assume it will eventually, but the app’s answers are obviously not definitive at this point.
One really nice touch about Evi is that each response it delivers comes with thumbs-up and thumbs-down icons, so you can let it know if the answers are appropriate for you. (When you give it the thumbs-down it gives you a message like “Oh no! It makes me so sad when I fail.”) Evi also sports a pretty snappy sense of humour – asking it who is going to win the Super Bowl next year elicited a dry “I wish I could tell you, but afraid I can’t see into the future.”
Even though these digital assistants are getting better all the time, and often send back some pretty amazing results, each of them go through little patches where it’s clear you’re speaking to a computer algorithm instead of an entity with real intelligence…each of them sometimes spit back answers that make it feel like you’re talking to the smartphone version of ELIZA.
Certainly each of these apps will get better and better, but for now, expect hiccups along the way. At the very least, if you have one of these apps on your phone and find yourself with any personal problems, you have someone to talk to.