Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Tech Tuesday: Siri Alternatives

Photo by Karlis Dambrans/Creative Commons
When Apple came out with their speech recognition/artificial intelligence app, Siri, everyone with an iPhone was feeling fairly smug.  They could speak into their phone and the phone would answer back with answers to questions, calling the person you asked for and typing texts you dictated.  Siri has become so omnipresent, it's even made it into TV shows, like when the character "Raj" fell in love with Siri in "The Big Bang Theory."

Those with Android or Windows phones were left asking, "why do I even need that?" and "how do I get one?"  We tested three Siri competitors in the Android market to see if they work the same way.

As most iPhone users will attest, you really don't NEED one but there are alternatives to Siri for both iPhones and Android phones.  Siri (which stands for Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) is classified as a "personal assistant" app.  Siri and her sister apps can make recommendations, provide search results, call someone in your contact list, set up an appointment or reminder on your calendar, or, using the speech recognition part of the app, transcribe an email or text.

All personal assistant apps react basically the same way, with some differences in specific user experiences between them.  You ask, they obey.

While it might be cool to think all you have to do is speak into your device and it'll give you exactly what you ask for, the results are not always exactly what you ask for.  If you don't speak clearly into the phone, you may end up sending an email or text that was transcribed incorrectly, to amazingly embarrassing degrees sometimes.

They're fun to play with and ask silly questions to, but none of them are 100-percent at setting your alarms, your appointments or even your time zone.Nuance isn't their strong point.  They can't tell the difference between red, read or read; two, too or to; or isle or I'll.

The three we tested were Google (which is already installed on Android phones), Hound and Personal Assistant.  We ran them through the same exercises and then lived with each for a week.

In function, they pretty much all worked the same.  Each comes with a stock voice that you can change to male or female.  Personal Assistant also has an avatar of your personal assistant, so you can choose how you want it to look and the voice changes accordingly.

Voice Recognition:  Google wins here, with Hound coming in second.  I was really hoping Personal Assistant would do better than it did, but it ended up at third.  Google had the highest percentage of correctly recognized words.

Learning Curve:  With any personal assistant app, you have to train it to recognize your voice and speech patterns correctly.  Google, again, won hands down.  It only took two or three times of asking questions and it was correct 96-percent of the time.  Personal Assistant, regrettably, came in last; it wasn't even close to 60-percent, even with my Midwestern accent and my reporter's enunciation.

Search Results:  Google is the biggest search engine in the world and the one used by most looking for answers on the web, so they'd better get this one right; don't worry - they have.  In this case, though Hound came in last, only because it took longer than the other two to come up with search results.

Transcription:  The Hound transcription of dictated texts and emails was better than the other two, so it wins here, with Google coming in second.  Hound was faster and required less correction when texts were dictated in the car through a Bluetooth headset.

Alarm and Appointment Setting:  Personal Assistant - I was really pulling for you here, but alas, when you hijacked my morning alarm and I overslept, you were done for.  In both Google and Hound, if you set an alarm, your default clock alarm takes over, so it will ring even if your sound is turned off.  Personal Assistant, on the other hand, takes over your alarm and substitutes it with their own, which doesn't work if the sound is turned off for the night.  Thankfully, Personal Assistant wasn't a real person or they'd have ended up with a black eye.

The overall winner is Google's voice recognition.  To turn either Google or Hound on, simply say "Hey, Google!" or "Hey, Hound!" and it'll wake up and stand by for your instructions.  Personal Assistant has to reside on your device's screen and you have to actually push it to turn it on.

The bigger question is, why would you want this?  It's true - it's cool for the first few days.  But I found, even having one for three weeks, after getting it all set up and testing them, I found I just didn't need it.  In those instances where it could have been of use, it wasn't worth the hassle of making sure the results were correct.

Even iPhone users will tell you they seldom use Siri except for very specific needs, like finding directions while you're driving, calling or texting someone when you're driving or if you're older and can't hit the keys on the keyboard, it comes in handy to transcribe your texts.

If you're interested in using a personal assistant app and don't have Apple, give Google or Hound a try; Google's app is automatically installed on Android phones, so all you have to do is activate it.