Android Apps try to Talk the Talk

The shift from clumsy buttons to an elegant touchscreen was the first big leap in smartphone interaction; smart assistants are the second. Apple clearly recognized…

The shift from clumsy buttons to an elegant touchscreen was the first big leap in smartphone interaction; smart assistants are the second. Apple clearly recognized this when it launched Siri, the intelligent personal assistant program for the iPhone 4S. Unfortunately, Siri (which is technically still in beta) didn’t perform quite as well as advertised, though the impending launch of iOS 6 suggests significant improvement.

As iPhone users languish in wait for their update, ice cream sandwich-eating Android phone users have apps specifically designed to rival Siri. Google, Samsung and LG are all vying for the general smartphone assistant throne. Robin, an app that solely handles driving-related activities, succeeds by avoiding the fray to focus on one area of expertise. Whether Siri reigns supreme or one of its competitors becomes the industry standard, smart assistants will become an integral aspect of mobile design.

It’s All About the NLP

The most important feature of any artificial assistant is that it quickly and easily understands what you have to say. Many programs can recognize your commands if you clearly enunciate each word and speak in a specific format, but this creates a stilted and one-sided conversation that doesn’t replicate the experience of talking to another human. The key to realism is natural language processing (NLP) software that extracts meaningful information from the words you say, regardless of the idiosyncrasies of voice or syntax. This means that you can speak to your phone as you would to a human being, with all the pauses and ums inherent in normal language, and it will still understand what you are trying to say.

Google’s Voice Actions lacks this completely, but Google still has a horse in the race. It has assembled an Android team to work on a project currently titled Assistant, an expansion of Voice Actions with the lofty goal of converting the world’s knowledge into a format a computer can understand. Sometime after that monumental task has been accomplished, a mobile voice-activated “do engine” will presumably go beyond returning search results or opening apps and help you accomplish real-life goals by integrating with your entire phone. Specific usages have not been demonstrated, but imagine telling Assistant that you want to lose weight. If it works as speculated, it might schedule workouts for you for the next month, download some diet apps, and bring you to the Weight Watchers website. The release date for this engine is unconfirmed, though it may be released Q4 2012.

Samsung S-Voice

In the meantime, both Samsung’s S Voice and LG’s Quick Voice offer an Android counterpoint to Siri. Quick Voice has only just been announced, so there’s no knowing how well it works. S Voice premiered with the Galaxy S3, but has had rather lackluster reviews. There are two major problems with assistant programs in general. First, they all require an internet connection with all the latency that implies, so they don’t respond nearly as quickly as they do in commercials (which edit out the waiting). Second, despite their ability to get used to your voice and improve with further use, they still often make mistakes, and each mistake decreases their utility. Why wait for a program to make a mistake when you can take care of the task yourself? They will only become standard when they improve their natural language processing and learn to mimic human conversation.

Robin, The Girl Wonder

Voice-activated assistants become much more useful in situations when you cannot use your hands, such as driving. Robin, the androgynously named app from software startup Magnifis, was made for such a situation. In addition to being entirely hands-free, Robin keeps track of your conversation, so it can answer questions based on previous context. Ask for the nearest Starbucks, and it can easily point you in the right direction. Follow up with a query for Italian restaurants near there, and it will remember that the ‘there’ refers to the Starbucks, not your current location.


Though narrowly focused on driving-related tasks (it can’t send text messages or play music), Robin is better at what it does than other more-encompassing assistants. Where the S Voice is the jack of all trades, master of none, Robin is a specialist. An assistant that combines the two, with advanced NLP that works with all the applications on your phone, would become the ultimate killer app.

Ever since KITT kicked ass in Knight Rider in the 80s, tech lovers have dreamt of an artificial intelligence assistant. Robin is at the forefront of fulfilling that dream. A car with hidden flamethrowers would be awesome, but a phone that could tell you the best place to eat and how to get there is a close second. Add functionality across the app spectrum and KITT doesn’t stand a chance.

(Images courtesy of: MobileMag, Android-Reviews, AllInOneGadget)

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