Hello Cortana, We Need Your Help

One of the most exciting reveals to come out of the Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco is Cortana, the Windows Phone counterpart to Apple’s Siri on iOS and Google Now on Android devices. Cortana takes her name from an artificial intelligence in the Halo video game franchise. Fans of the games may be disappointed to find that her physical traits—a holographic human body—have been reduced on Windows Phone to a two-toned ring. At her debut, she described herself as resembling “a hula hoop, a donut…a halo.” What she lacks in appearance, though, she is poised to make up for in making lives easier.

Cortana is powered by Bing, but she is more than a search engine with a voice. She can be used to schedule appointments, send texts, make calls, set reminders—virtually anything that a Windows Phone can be used for. She can do all of these things through voice commands, or through text commands that you type in. “Commands” isn’t exactly the right word to describe how to interact with Cortana, though. She is built to interpret conversational language. Instead of performing searches with clunky phrases like, “Cortana, search web, gas prices, Morrisville, North Carolina” you can simply ask, “Cortana, where can I get the cheapest gas?” You talk to her like you would another person. You don’t have to think what you want, reorganize the question in your head, and then carefully speak specific words in a particular order. Ask, and Cortana will provide.

You may be thinking, OK, this is exactly what Siri and Google Now do, and you’re right. But where Cortana sets herself apart from other intelligent digital assistants is the precision with which she listens, and her ability to accurately interpret commands within their context. If you ask, “What’s the best restaurant in town?” she will link you directly to the highest-rated restaurant in the area. If you ask, “What are some nearby restaurants?” she will provide a list of several area restaurants. You can then follow up with, “How far away is the fourth one?” and Cortana will tell you the distance to the fourth restaurant on the list, while also displaying a map to the restaurant from your current location. This sensitivity to current interactions with the phone reduces the barriers between users and what they want.

As a personal assistant, it is Cortana’s job to get to know you as well as she can. At her initial set up, she asks several questions, but more than simple what questions such as your favorite sports team or television show. She is more interested in why, like your motivations for selecting a restaurant when dining out. From first contact on, she begins adapting to your behavior and how you interact with your phone over time. Like a human personal assistant, she adapts to your personality.

Cortana’s ability to learn through observation and interaction is not unrestricted, however, which should calm any fears consumers may have about their privacy and how much control they actually have over their own assistant. Cortana has a virtual notebook containing what she keeps track of, like email, reminders, searches, and the people you interact with regularly. If you want Cortana to stop notifying you about your emails, for instance, you can ask Cortana to stop, or manually remove email from her notebook. Her notebook serves both to maximize user control and her utility. By controlling what she keeps track of, she will only assist with the information most important to you.

An impressive aspect of Cortana is her ability to be integrated with third-party apps. She is not limited only to built-in services and tools on Windows Phone. In her debut at Build 2014, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft Windows Phone, asked Cortana to add a specific show to his queue in the Hulu app, and she did so immediately. This interactivity with an app without having to run the app itself opens the door for all Windows Phone developers to enhance their apps with Cortana, and encourages them to consider building app features that can be used indirectly through Cortana.

Even though Cortana has yet to be released, the question of whether she will eventually make her way to Windows tablets is already popping up on message boards and comments sections. Though it took almost a year, Apple’s Siri branched out from iPhones to iPads, and given the universal Windows apps that were also unveiled at Build in which a single Windows app will be able to deploy to Windows 8.1, Xbox One, Windows tablets, and Windows Phones, this question seems more a matter of when rather than if. What extent Cortana spreads beyond Windows Phone, if any, will be a waiting game. So while we wait, let us speculate: If Cortana does appear in some form on the Xbox One, will she ultimately replace the current interaction system on the platform? And if Cortana proves to be an asset whose applicability knows no bounds, will Microsoft name her the successor to the Sync voice control system currently used in some Ford vehicles?

Cortana is expected to be released “shortly” in the U.S. in beta form to help fine-tune some of her features, notably her voice recognition abilities. The U.K. and China will receive Cortana later this year. Until then, let us know what you think of Cortana in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook. If you’re ready to develop new Windows Phone apps in preparation for Cortana, check out Syncfusion Windows Phone controls, now available for $1 for hobbyists.

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