Hello Cortana, it's nice to meet you

23 Apr 2014

Microsoft made great play of Cortana when it announced the Windows Phone 8.1 update at Build at the beginning of April. Cortana is Microsoft's answer to Siri and Google Now -- a voice-activated "personal digital assistant" for the Windows Phone operating system.

Predictably, great things are promised of this new technology. It's based on Bing and the TellMe voice technology acquired by Microsoft in 2007, and according to Windows Phone vice-president Joe Belfiore it will be "the only digital assistant that gets to know you, builds a relationship that you can trust, and gets better over time by asking questions based on your behavior and checking in with you before she assumes you’re interested in something".

Over the past couple of days we've been getting to know Cortana to find out if Microsoft's boasts have any grounding in reality.

How does Cortana work?

Cortana can be launched either as an app, or by holding a finger down on your Windows Phone’s search key. Just like Siri and Google Now, it needs an internet connection to work, and attempts to process natural language queries and instructions, whether spoken or written.

It isn’t only a voice recognition system, though. Cortana also aggregates news items based on your interests in the Daily Glance mode (you have to specify your interests through the settings), warns you about traffic conditions in advance of meetings, trawls your email for travel details to alert you about flights, and it tells you the weather.

You can also use Cortana to recognise music tracks, and manage when you want the phone switched to silent mode through the Quiet Hours feature. Through "Inner Circles", it's possible to specify contacts you want Cortana to pass through no matter what the time of day.

Aside from all this, you can launch apps and, in the future, developers will be able to hook into the system to provide compatibility with third-party software. For now, you can say "open Spotify"; in the future, you may be able to ask Cortana to "open Spotify and play some Pink Floyd".

Is Cortana any good, though?

From our initial test, the voice recognition seems very accurate. Although it’s yet to be localised to the UK, Cortana interpreted the British voices of the PC Pro staff largely without incident.

We’ve been able to ask simple questions, arrange appointments and set reminders, find places to eat nearby, navigate to addresses, call friends and send text messages largely without incident. The way Cortana provides suggestions as to what you might ask for is particularly neat: it helps you learn about the sorts of things the system can do for you far quicker than mere random trial and error.

Cortana’s weakness isn't in the transcription of voice, rather the interpretation of language itself. We found it was consistently confused by strings of letters and numbers, such as those found in a post code. "Navigate to W1T 4JD" thus became "navigate 2 ee one p 4 jd", a search phrase which (aside from its laughable inaccuracy) launched a web search instead of a Here+ maps session. Google Now had no such problems, and although Siri's transcription wasn't completely accurate, it did at least recognise we were speaking a series of letters and numbers.

Cortana also refused to set alarms for "sixteen hundred hours" but interpreted the request for "sixteen thirty-five" perfectly; we'd expect a system so tightly tied to business productivity to have no trouble at all with dates and times. In a similar vein, Cortana understood "schedule a meeting", but not "schedule a holiday". We found it wouldn't let us dictate a non-US telephone number, either, even if we prefixed it with an international dialling code.

The speech recognition may be impressive, then, producing accurate results even without localisation, but right now the interpretation appears to lack the breadth and depth of "understanding" (if you can call it that) of its rivals. The extra features seem a bit of a mishmash, too. We're not sure Cortana is the best place for news and weather when there are plenty of apps that do that job perfectly well.

Despite this, we do think this is a promising debut for Cortana, and remember that it’s a feature that's still technically in development. Let’s hope that, by the time it hits UK phones later this year, it will be a much more well-rounded and understanding system.

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