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Hands on: Siri the trivia buff

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Gadgets on the go

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian freelance technology journalist with a passion for gadgets and the "digital lounge room".

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Apple's Siri virtual assistant on the iPhone 4S.

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


37 comments so far

  • I'm not sure that I'm ready to be seen in public, having an audible conversation with a computer. :) I'll stick with "just type" on my device.

    Commenter
    HP Veer user
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    October 17, 2011, 8:25AM
    • It seems you've missed the greatest feature of Siri.... dictating and reading your SMS, email etc.

      This to me is the single greatest feature of this service. It makes emailing and SMS'ing while driving a reality... at least a far less dangerous one at any rate. Being able to respond to emails and messages immediately while driving is invaluable for business and personal users alike, not to mention how much easier it would be having your emails headings read to you while walking through the city or having your lunch than trying to walk and read at the same time.

      Stuff like searching for the nearest pizza place and all that nonsense is pure fluff. How often are we really in some foreign city with no idea where the nearest petrol station or KFC, and how much are we going to value the 20 seconds of typing saying (and hopefully not repeating) that question into Siri has just freed up for us?

      Commenter
      Andrew
      Location
      Caringbah
      Date and time
      October 17, 2011, 9:42AM
      • Google voice search on Android already does the trivia thing and has for the last 2 years.

        If it did the location thing it would be good but so far it is just a tease.

        Commenter
        tango8
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        October 17, 2011, 10:04AM
        • yes, google voice, Vlingo and others have been doing this gig on Android for years. Vlingo's SMS and emailing functions are a part of my everyday Android usage. Surprised the author didn't acknowledge this.

          Nice as the iphones are to look at, they've been surpassed on a number of fronts in the last 12-18 months so that it's now a case of catch-up for the Apple fan-boys.

          Commenter
          hobbo
          Date and time
          October 17, 2011, 11:06AM
          • @tango8 | Sydney - October 17, 2011, 10:04AM.

            Your exactly right. I've had the iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS and an iPhone 4. I just got a Samsung Galaxy S2. I let me tell you. I should have jumped to android after the 3GS...

            @Andrew | Caringbah - October 17, 2011, 10:42AM

            These are all features that the Android devices have done for a long time. And not new technology. I think the iPhones are great. But technologically, they are playing catch up to Android now... Pretty disappointing.

            And while Wolfram Alpha is impressive. When looking for information, I'd back the phone OS that is built by the world biggest search provider 10-10 times...

            Commenter
            Aaron
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            October 17, 2011, 11:50AM
            • WARNING do not update your iPhone to iOS5 If you fancy it google iOS5 lost contacts and you will see the following is a very widespread major problem. All of my contacts have been deleted. Many solutions exist online to get them back but after trawling through all of them and speaking to Apple it appears mine and thousands of others are deleted for good.

              This is the worst 'bug' I can think of. A decades worth of contacts gone. As is my allegance to my iPhone. Will be looking elsewhere when contract up. Simply can't believe this never came up in testing. Dreadfull.

              Commenter
              Julian
              Location
              Manly
              Date and time
              October 17, 2011, 12:53PM
              • I can't believe the hype surrounding the new Iphone4S. I'd like to see mobile phones companies introducing something fresh rather than continous upgrades of existing phones. It's like waiting and watching to see your popular rock band doing covers. As for Siri zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

                Commenter
                Stevodevo
                Location
                LittleBay
                Date and time
                October 17, 2011, 1:02PM
                • Also be aware, when upgrading to IOS5 in an overseas location, in my case Shanghai, your google maps automatically becomes the local script, again in my case chinese and in chinese script and you cannot revert back to english.

                  Commenter
                  KC
                  Location
                  Shanghai
                  Date and time
                  October 17, 2011, 1:33PM
                  • Hi CBR. I have tried all of the available on line solutions to do to save you the effort. I did not externally back up my contacts I was surprised that all my previous backups were gone. iOS5 is obviously a new replacement operating system so my back ups prior to installing iOS5 no longer exist! Brilliant. Even the difficult process of winding back to iOS4 is unlikely to yield results. Trust me. Google it. I'm one of many and people who back up every day are effected. If you are upgrading to iOS5

                    1) back up your contacts/photos/music/apps if you can external to apple or iTunes.
                    2) opt OUT of anything to do with iCloud as this has been a frequent common denominator

                    Seriously. What's the point in having back ups if the new operating system wipes them !

                    Commenter
                    Julian
                    Location
                    Manly
                    Date and time
                    October 17, 2011, 1:52PM
                    • Julian: "this is the worst bug I can think of".
                      I can think of a worse one: when a user doesn't know what they are doing and then when things go wrong blames the product instead of themselves.
                      Upgrade step 1. Backup the phone.
                      Upgrade step 2. Upgrade OS.
                      Upgrade step 3. synch/restore from backup.
                      Simple.

                      Commenter
                      The Write Stuff
                      Location
                      Melbourne
                      Date and time
                      October 17, 2011, 2:05PM

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