Last week, Microsoft was busy showing off a whole range of new innovations and developments at its annual Build conference, which saw around 5,000 developers decamp to San Francisco to take in the sights and find out about the future of the company. And among the many new ideas on show was a major update to the company's Windows Phone platform – version 8.1.
The firm promises the new update will be the most personalised smartphone platform ever, with features like an updated Start screen that lets users customise their Live Tiles and a whole bunch of new themes. But one of the central features will be Cortana – Microsoft's new virtual assistant, which is aiming to update Apple's Siri and Google's Now service.
What's a Cortana?
Cortana is a name gamers might well recognise, as it (or perhaps that should be she?) has been named after the artificial intelligence that helps out the player in the Halo series. In fact, it'll even sound the same, as the character's original voice actor Jen Taylor is on board – with Microsoft explaining that this will be used mainly for 'chit-chat' conversation that allows them to take the original audio, while a synthesised version is used for other, everyday interactions. The only thing that's missing is the full holographic appearance. Maybe in a couple of years.
It might seem like a gimmick and a nice in-joke to please gaming fans (changing your nickname to Master Chief in the settings promises to yield yet more Halo-related japery) but its an indication of just how seriously Microsoft is taking the technology. It's aiming not to be just a copy of Siri, but a true virtual assistant to help smartphone owners get things done – much like Halo's Cortana.
So what can she do?
According to Microsoft, what sets Cortana apart from Siri and Google Now is the personal relationship it builds up between the phone and its user. Right from the first time you load it up, Cortana will start learning about you – asking questions such as how to correctly pronounce your name and what your interests are.
In designing Cortana, Microsoft went out and spoke to real personal assistants to find out just how they do their job – then replicated the responses in the software. So for example, one of the tips the team got from this was that many PAs keep a notebook containing their bosses' preferences and interests.
Therefore, Cortana also carries a 'virtual notebook', in which she keeps a record of a user's activities. So for example, she'll know if your flight is going to be delayed, while she can deal with incoming notifications such as texts and emails – and even screen out calls so only your 'inner circle' of contacts can get through during designated quiet hours.
Perhaps most importantly, Microsoft has worked hard to make Cortana feel like more than a piece of software. Corporate vice-president and manager for Windows Phone Program Management Joe Belfiore explained in a blog post: "Cortana isn't just a dry computer returning search results. Just as she has in the game Halo, Windows Phone's Cortana has a bit of personality. But you'll have to talk to her yourself to see what I mean by that."
How does she function in the real-world?
It's all very well setting up a virtual assistant that can answer a series of structured questions in lab conditions, but getting it to work in the real world is another matter – just look at the troubles Siri has with deciphering some people's accents and dialects for an example. so all the smart tech in the world won't help Cortana if she can't provide the answers users want.
And some of the initial hands-on tests seem to be promising on this front. Mashable, for instance, noted that the technology is "really good" at setting reminders and has a range of options available for them – with reminders able to be tied to a time, place or a person.
It also added that Cortana seems to be a little better than Siri at detecting and interpreting natural language – something that's likely to be crucial to its success.
Meanwhile, PC World noted the system appears to be ahead of Siri and about on a par with Google Now in terms of how it understands questions and provides answers. The publication observed it did well on both factual questions and general queries such as 'what's the best restaurant near here?', which produced a list of top-rated local restaurants from Yelp.
The software was still a little patchy in places, it was stated, but it should be noted that it is still officially in beta and – once the kinks get worked out – it should get even better.