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“I’m learning about you.”

“I’m learning about you.”

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(This article is about Microsoft's new smartphone assistant, Cortana – which was in beta when I was typing these words.)

 

The general feedback on the Windows Phone 8.1 preview and Cortana has been great. And while Cortana is still working through serenity and apprehension, you would always stumble upon something new while playing around with its voice commands. And it is then one realizes that behind the curtain of its virtual personality, there is a powerful analytic tool that harvests data perceptively from your mobile and global information sources. And it is still in beta.

The one striking factor that differentiates it from other personal smartphone assistants is Cortana's Notebook – A single repository, where it stores all that it has learnt about you. The best part being the fact that you have read & write access to this notebook.

 

Cortana's Notebook stores information about the places you frequent, or the information you frequently search for (weather, restaurants etc.) and then it determines your favorites and your habits. Also, it lets you view and edit what it has learnt about you. Some of your interests that are captured are…

Your daily routine

 

Places you love to visit

 

Your daily news preferences

 

Your travel preferences

 

Cortana, among other things, will help you perform basic tasks like calling a person in your contacts list. However, the interesting fact to note would be the very many ways in which you can ask it do a specific task. I have listed out a few that I have tried from its fact book.

"Call Anshuman"

"Call Anshuman on speakerphone"

"Make a call to Anshuman at home"

 

Another interesting feature is the way that Cortana lets you tweak your reminders.

Like you would expect, it does read your calendar for your meetings and creates new appointments. Here are a few amazing ways in which you can use her to plan your schedule.

"Put dentist appointment on my calendar tomorrow"

"Change my 3 PM appointment to 4"

"What do I have next?"

"What am I doing this weekend?"

"Add surfing at the beach to my calendar for Saturday"

Cortana also takes a note of the places you frequently visit. And it will ask you if it is your work place or home. And then you can use this saved information to perform tasks like setting location specific reminders. This information is stored in the notebook. And so you do have the option of manually adding or editing your favorite locations in Cortana's notebook and use them in your voice commands.

"When Dad calls, remind me to say congratulations"

"Next time I'm at the grocery store, remind me to buy eggs"

"Remind me to pick up dry cleaning when I leave work"

"Remind me to water the plants when I reach home"

 

It helps you take notes and manage your alarms too.

"Take a Note"

"Note: left my car on level 4"

"Wake me up at 6 AM"

"Wake me up in 20 minutes"

"Turn on my 3 PM alarm"

 

Or when you are driving, it consolidates information like traffic or places to visit like restaurants nearby or the weather.

"Show me a map of 123 Main Street"

"Find cheap pizza restaurants near me"

"Is there a Starbucks near me?"

"How far to the Grand Canyon"

"What's traffic like on the way to work?"

 

"Is it hot in New Delhi?"

"Will it rain this weekend?"

"Do I need an umbrella?"

Another helpful feature included in the beta is the "quiet hours" option. Cortana can set this up for you for those few hours in the day when you would not want to be disturbed.

 

Once turned on, quiet hours will block all phone calls and will suppress alerts from notifications and text messages that you may receive.

However, it does allow you to set up breakthrough rules and add people to your "inner circle" group, who can contact you even when the quiet hours are turned on.

 

You can also set up an automatic text message reply to those who were not allowed through.

 

Cortana essentially has taken over the search option in Windows Phone 8.1. With that in place, you can now talk to Bing. There are numerous phrases you can try – so much so that at some point it becomes a fun activity.

It also highlights the work that has gone into Microsoft Cosmos.

 

"Show me top headlines"

"Show me the local news"

"Show me today's news"

 

"Who is the tallest woman in the world?"

"Who is the president of Finland?"

"What's the capital of Qatar?"

"Who built the White House?"

 

"Last Seahawks game"

"What's the Arsenal score?"

 

"What time does Alaska 32 depart?"

"Flight status Southwest 11"

 

"Convert 60 dollars to yen"

"Bitcoin exchange rate"

 

"How much is Costco stock worth?"

"What's the stock symbol for Ford Motors?"

"What's the current share value of Nokia?"

"How are US markets doing?"

"What's the value of Microsoft stock?"

 

"Find recipes for Clam chowder"

"How many calories in a cucumber?"

"How much fat in Caesar salad?"

"How much protein in a ham sandwich?"

 

And finally, you can use Cortana to control your apps as well.

"Find Angry Birds Apps"

 

The success of perceptive data harvesting depends on Cortana's ability to access information about you. It does try to determine the person you are through your daily searches and routine. However, to help, you can integrate it with Facebook. Like it says – "Signing into Facebook lets Cortana and Bing give you more personalized recommendations and allows Microsoft to access certain Faceboook information."

 

Based on a character from the popular Halo games, Cortana is a product of research that may not stay limited to Windows Phone platform. These innovations will most certainly be used to improve Windows and the software and servers in Enterprise segment and of course Xbox. The fact that Microsoft works on so many different products, makes it all the more exciting to imagine the possibilities.

It is a great start where Microsoft has pulled in user feedback and learnings from experiences with existing smartphone assistants and has invested its own innovation in an attempt to build something better. Many would say it has come late but it might just be worth the wait.

 

 

 

Last night, I was playing with the WP 8.1 developer's preview and the new personal assistant bundled with it. Accidentally, one of the questions it picked up was "Cortana… Are you doing?"

Of all the questions you could have asked it quipped back.

"How are you doing?" was the actual question though.

 

But it was fun and so I asked again – this time, it was mischief.

I would not, could not, in the rain. Not in the dark. Not on a train… a different response!

Tip: Keep asking the same question over and over.

Finally she says… Words fail me.

Comments
  • Nice explanation !!!! When would the feature be available outside US? Have a 8.1 lumia 630 and after going through this blog it looks like m missing a lot of good things about 8.1 :(

  • Even though there is no ETA, between the later half of this year and through 2015, Cortana is going to graduate from the current Beta and be released globally.

    However, there is an unofficial work around to get these features outside U.S. ;) - sign up for developer preview - http://dev.windowsphone.com/en-us/develop/devpreview - and change all your region and language settings to United States (Only). Also make sure that in your language settings, English (United States) is the only option or above all other options.

    Again, this work around is not recommended though as it will tune your experience as if you were in U.S. Also, if you unlock your phone, for development, as per guidelines in some specific cases (refer to link above), your warranty goes null and void.

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