April 3rd, 2014 by Maria Minsker

At Build 2014 yesterday, Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore introduced Cortana, a long awaited rival to Apple’s Siri (and Google Now). Based on a character from the video game Halo, Cortana will be available on Microsoft’s Windows Phone version 8.1, and will be able to perform the same basic functions as her competitors–and more. Though Microsoft is far from declaring victory in the race for the creator of the best personal digital assistant, there are already a few reasons why Apple and the like should be concerned.

The Notebook

When a user first interacts with Cortana, the system will go through a series of questions to gauge a thorough understanding of the individual’s preference–his or her favorite type of food, preferred genre of music, and other lifestyle questions. This initial information, along with other behavioral data that Cortana collects over time, will be stored in her “Notebook,” a knowledge database that the system will rely on to deliver more personalized search results. The Notebook is also pretty transparent, and allows users to change privacy settings simply by say something like “Cortana, I don’t want you to know that information.”

Multistep Search

Like Siri, Cortana can respond to voice prompts and search the Web for things like nearby restaurants or movie show times. For example, if a user says, “Find good restaurant nearby,” Cortana will pull up the listing for the restaurant the user is most likely to enjoy. Note that unlike Siri, which returns a list, Cortana returns one result, which is based on the data she collected in her Notebook as well as on Yelp reviews. Also unlike Siri, Cortana can then take the search one step further. Once the restaurant listing is displayed, the user can say “Get directions there,” and Cortana will understand that “there” refers to the restaurant she just pulled up. This multistep search is an impressive innovation that creates more of a conversational feel, rather than a series of disjunctive searches.

Emotions

“Like any good assistant and Apple’s Siri,” The Verge’s Tom Warren writes, “Cortana’s personality shines through in daily use. Ask her, ‘Who’s your father?’ and Cortana will reply, ‘Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates. No big deal.’ Other queries produce witty responses, and some answers make the circular character spring to life and animate with one of 16 emotions. Cortana won’t always respond with emotion and animations, but Microsoft envisions a future where she reacts visually to sports scores or other events — any good assistant knows to be pumped when a football team wins and furious when they lose, and so does Cortana now,” he explains.

Contact-Connected Reminders

Cortana’s reminder capabilities are deeper than Siri’s as well. She can perform basic functions like remind users about meetings and appointments, but can generate more nuanced reminders as well. For example, if a users asks Cortana to remind him to speak to his boss about a certain project, Cortana can deliver the reminder alert the next time the boss calls the user, or the user calls his boss.

A Future Integration with Third Party Apps

Soon, Cortana will most likely have control over third party apps as well, and give users the ability to perform functions within apps directly through voice prompts. The integration would “[allow] users to simply say, ‘Hulu, show me the latest episode of Modern Family’ and the app will launch with the latest episode, rather like the way voice search works on Xbox,” Warren writes. “Combined with the reminders,” he says, “it’s an example of how useful and powerful speech is when it’s done right.”

An Eventual Connection to XBOX and Windows-Powered Computers

As Microsoft continues to improve Cortana and build on the new feature, a connection to the XBOX Kinect as well as to computers that run Windows seems inevitable. That level of integration and seamlessness, in my personal opinion, will deliver a whole new kind of user experience.

 

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