Apple's Siri virtual assistant on the iPhone 4S.
Do we really need an iPhone that talks back?
iOS5 brings a lot of additions and improvements to Apple’s iPhone platform, but none more intriguing than the Siri intelligent voice interaction system. For the moment Siri is a beta project restricted to the new iPhone 4S, Apple’s latest wunderphone which I took a look at on Friday.
There was plenty written about Siri last week, but it mostly covered the cute things such as how Siri responds when you make silly requests such as “Open the pod bay doors”. Sure that’s entertaining, but will we still love Siri when the novelty wears off?
Some people are already gushing over Siri and making grand statements such as it’s “an incredible taste of the future”. So are the first flying cars, that doesn’t mean you’d want to own one today. There's no question that Siri is an amazing technical achievement, but is it actually useful and practical at this point?
I put Siri to the test on a new iPhone 4S on loan from Vodafone. The new voice feature isn’t enabled by default, you need to dip into the General/ Siri settings to switch it on. Unfortunately Siri’s capabilities are somewhat limited for now if you’re outside the United States. This is understandable considering it’s still in beta, but it does make it harder to evaluate Siri’s usefulness.
Siri’s Location Services are disabled by default, which is perhaps a good thing because it becomes even less useful once it knows where it is. My first question to Siri was “What time is it?” which it answered with ease while displaying a clock widget. Yet once you enable Siri’s Location Services, it responds with “Sorry, I don’t know what time it is in ...” followed by your current street address. This is a little disappointing, even for a beta.
Ask Siri “Where am I?” and you’re told “Sorry, I can only look for businesses, maps and traffic in the United States, and when you’re using US English”. Get used to it, it’s a phrase you’re going to here from Siri a lot for a while.
In order to assess Siri’s usefulness I think you need to start with one key question; why would you want to talk to your phone? “Because it’s cool, like something out of Star Trek” isn’t a good enough answer. You need to seriously consider which tasks are more practical using voice commands rather than the touchscreen. I can think of three of key three areas; looking up information, searching for location-based services and interacting with the phone’s features including Personal Information Management. Obviously that could expand as the phone’s capabilities expand. For example, if the iPhone was X10 capable I guess it’s possible I could tell it to close the blinds and turn on the television. Once it’s integrated with third-party services you might be able to use it to schedule recordings on your PVR or call up recent newspaper articles on particular issues.
For now Siri is quite useful and very accurate when it comes to looking up facts, thanks to excellent voice recognition and tight back-end integration with the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge” engine. Siri would make an excellent trivial pursuit companion and has no trouble with questions such as;
What is the atomic weight of lead?
How tall is Mount Everest?
What is the square root of 81?
How many litres in 500 gallons?
What is the capital of Brazil?
When was the French Revolution?
Who was the first person to walk on the Moon?
Who is the Governor of California?
Siri takes around five seconds to think about it and then displays a result from Wolfram Alpha which generally includes the answer. Unfortunately Siri doesn’t read the answer aloud, which will frustrate vision-impaired users.
More complicated questions are less likely to get you the answer you wanted. For example “Who won the Battle of Hastings” brings up basic information but doesn’t actually tell you who won. Siri can also misinterpret the question. For example “Who won the Vietnam War?” gets you the conversion rate between the Korean won and the Vietnamese dong.
If you really manage to stump Siri with a question such as “Who invented the combustion engine?” it offers to do a web search. You’re taken to Google search results in Mobile Safari, where you’ll probably find the answer in the snippets offered from the search result pages. It’s still faster than typing the query into Google yourself, especially if it’s a long question.
You can also bypass Wolfram Alpha and force Siri to search the web by starting your query with the name of a service such as Google, Yahoo!, Bing or Wikipedia. This might sound like a novelty, but I think it would grow on you very quickly. I often use my iPhone for quick Google and Wikipedia searches during the day and it could easily become second nature to call on Siri.
You can imagine how Siri’s capabilities could be expanded to include the likes of eBay, IMDB and the phone book. The ability to preface searches with terms such as “news” or “buy” could also significantly expand Siri’s horizons.
If you’re looking for general information Siri is very impressive, as long as you don’t ask any questions that involve spatial information. How far is it from New York to Washington? Where is the Murray River? The Mississippi River? New York? The Holy Grail? The remote control for the television? Siri almost always responds; “Sorry, I can only look for businesses, maps and traffic in the United States, and when you’re using US English”. Sometime you'll get lucky as Siri will treat it as a search queries, or else you can force Siri got turn to the web by starting your questions with "Google".
Location-search will come with time, but the lack of Australian features still takes some of the early shine off an otherwise impressive debut. You can change Siri over to US English and have a play with location-based search, although it switches to a far less natural female voice which sounds more like Stephen Hawking. You can have a play with the UK English (male), French (male) and German (female) voices while you're at it, they all sound more natural than US English but I think the Australian female voice sounds most pleasing to my ear.
US reviews of Siri show that it’s surprisingly capable when searching for nearby services and even going a step further such as helping you book flights or movie tickets. Apple has plans to integrate more databases and services into Siri over time, so it’s going to get better and better. If these services worked in Australia I’d probably be more taken with Siri, although I’m not convinced that I’d want Siri to handle these tasks rather than doing it myself using the touchscreen. It would take a while for me to get into the habit of turning to Siri to engage in transactions and even longer to trust it.
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but we’re still to examine some of Siri’s most useful tricks such as handling appointments and dictating messages. I’ll wrap up on Wednesday with a look at Siri the personal assistant.
NEXT POST: Hands on: Siri the personal assistant