Siri thoughts – redux

In October 2011 Siri was unveiled to the world in beta form and Apple promised so much. Below in italic is my original review followed by my update.

I have now lived with Siri for around three months and I still cannot get to grips with the technology, the best times to use it or why it is so much slower than the old voice control. Siri of course is Apple’s voice controlled digital assistant for iPhone 4S and, once iOS 6 arrives, for the new iPad.

I have now lived with Siri for the best part of 6 years and I don’t use it as much as I expected to. But when I do it is getting much better, a little more natural and more powerful. But it doesn’t feel like six years of development time has go into it.

The tech is undoubtably cool yet it still doesn’t work with a whole sub-set of English accents. Even an accent with an slightly elongated vowel can be enough to confuse Siri and that’s without introducing the inconsistency or the poor noise cancelling when using a hands free mic. Apple’s mic or anyone else’s may I add.

There are many times where Siri can’t understand me simply because I don’t want to be speaking that loudly to my phone in public.

The idea that is supposed to separate Siri from much of the rest of the voice controlled world is the ability to speak to he/she/it using natural language. But does this work?

People don’t use voice control in cars because they can never remember the control words. Although designed to work with natural language if often feels that the same problem exists with Siri. I know Siri can do so much but despite what Apple says you are still constrained to a certain syntax to get the best out of it. People also don’t use voice control in cars much because everything is designed to be within reach. What’s quicker: “car, turn on hazard lights” or reach out and press the button? Is it any different with a phone that is in your hand?

I still find that on occasion I have to speak using particular syntax rather than in natural language. But Siri is better at natural language than almost all the other digital assistants on the market right now.

Since I wrote this article I picked up an Apple Watch and this changes Siri – and not just because she is silent on the watch! With the advent of the iPhone 6s and its M9 co-processor ‘Hey Siri’ can work at all times – not just when on charge or when called by using the home button. So all you do is say (or shout) Hey Siri in the direction of your phone/watch. But what if you have both? Well then you really have to disable it on one. Two iOS devices seem to be able to cope with one giving way to the other but the watch and iPhone combo doesn’t seem quite so intelligent.

Now disabled on my iPhone, Hey Siri allows me to set timers and alarms on my Apple Watch whilst cooking. And without touching anything. Suddenly this is something I use.

What else do I use Siri on the watch for:

  • What music is playing?
  • Play [x] album
  • Set timer for [x] minutes
  • Call [friend A]
  • Turn on my lights
  • Turn off my lights
  • What time is [some shop] opening today?
  • Navigate to [x]

This brings me neatly onto where to use Siri because it often depends on where your phone is.

The car: ok this is a pretty good place to use Siri as a digital assistant because I don’t want to take my eye off the road. I still have to concentrate, remember an unnatural or specific series of words and then check that it is doing what it should be. In fact that is the greatest problem: I have so little confidence that Siri will get my instruction right first time that I don’t use it. I don’t want to be in the car grabbing and stabbing at my phone to stop it calling a random person in my phone book when I was simply trying to add a reminder. The other day Siri read out the number of someone in my contacts. I don’t know what word or command you have to use to do that but I was trying to make a phone call to a completely different person. I cannot say it was a success.

If you are a passenger then Siri works brilliantly. Part functional, part showing off to the driver you are in a controlled environment where you can turn down the music a bit and quickly stop Siri if she starts to do something unexpected. I have to point out that it is still quicker to control the phone with your fingers though.

Now in 2017, I find that Siri has improved immensely in this environment. Call people, read out the last text, navigate somewhere and even send texts. All are now part of my normal Siri usage and I have to say that I’m impressed.

Assuming you have a reasonably modern car that’s quiet, has a roof and bluetooth then you should be good to go. The whole experience is particularly good if you can control music and if you have the iPhone plus sizes, which make for great GPS if yours isn’t built in.

I have never played with Apple’s CarPlay system that may change the experience significantly.

Old Score 5/10 – depends what side of the car you are sitting.

New score 8/10 – getting better all the time

The train: this is generally how I commute to work and I’m lucky to get a seat going to work and coming home it’s a 50/50 for the first half of my journey. If I have a seat I am normally one of a group of six people sitting in seats just a little too small for any of us and Apple wants me to instruct my phone in a clear and well enunciated manner to ‘tell me what the weather will be like today’. Sorry but no. I won’t use the word I want to but I can promise you that I would look like a right one of those if I started speaking at my phone on a busy train. The environment is quiet. So quiet that you can hear a pin drop or a berk talking to his phone. Thats the real problem. I have the phone in my hand and so I will use it by pressing buttons. Opposable thumbs and all that.

Trains haven’t changed but my journey is now on a line that hardly works (thanks Southern) and therefore has commuters with an even lower tolerance for annoyance. Oh, and O2’s network is a bit ropy on the south coast of England and Siri still doesn’t work offline.

Old score 10/10 – works a treat if you don’t mind being ostracised

New score 10/10 – if you have internet access and don’t mind being glared at for the rest of the journey.

Walking down the street: wind noise makes Siri sad and it makes me frustrated because I cannot make myself understood no matter what microphone I use. So yes Siri works when there is no wind noise to compete with. This would be the perfect place to use Siri to avoid taking my phone out of my pocket and to avoid walking into a post.

Doing any serious dictation with Siri cannot be done completely hands free. Opening the correct app (notes) and then pressing the microphone is a requirement. It is possible to take very short reminder notes completely hands free but they can only be one sentence long. Once manually selected the quality of dictation is pretty good for me and I can certainly get the basics of an article outlined.

Can’t say there is much change here.

Old score 8/10 – without wind, 2/10 with

New score 8/10 without wind, 4/10 with wind

Office: I work in an open plan office and I really don’t need my boss thinking I’m mad because I’m talking to myself. The phone is next to me and a computer is in front of me. There is nothing quicker about attempting to speak to my phone compared to tapping a few keys on the keyboard.

Siri has an option where you just put the phone to your ear and speak to enable it. So the theory goes pick up the phone and put it to your ear. Say ‘Call x’ and within seconds you are chatting away. The reality goes pick up phone and put it to your ear. Say ‘Call X’. Then nothing happens for 10 seconds. Finally, after feeling like a bit of a wally with the phone next to your ear but not saying anything Siri asks you if you meant Y. You reply ‘No. Call X’ and this time Siri gets the right person but asks if you wanted mobile, iPhone, work or home. State the preferred option and then, after a few more seconds, you generally hear the phone ringing. I can unlock the phone, and find a contact in 1/10 the time it takes me to deal with Siri.

It works. Slowly.

Voice biometrics have appeared on the scene since the first version of this article. If I’m in the office I don’t want to read out my security questions or tell the automated service that I have having trouble with my plumbing and need to talk to an assistant. It could be misconstrued.

The same goes for reading out the name of the person I’m calling or general dictation.

Old score 7/10 – “No boss, I’m not mad.”

New score 8/10 – even better recognition but just as unlikely to use it.

The pub: it always seems that my network strength is the weakest in the group or it’s too noisy to use Siri or my battery is at 18% and really I don’t want it dying on me before the end of the night.

This is where your friends find out some really cool things Siri can do that you didn’t realize. Mathematical equations, searching the web, setting an alarm for any time, tweeting, texting and emailing. Siri will even read out your emails and let you reply to them all by voice. Very cool.

Old score 8/10 so long as the ambient volume is reasonable

New score 9/10 – the silly things Siri can do keep getting better

I did find something that has made my whole experience better and that is to use the correct version of Siri for your location. In the UK you have to use that blokes voice because it is tailored to the British accent and therefore understands much more of what I am saying than the US Siri. I know that sounds obvious but I had turned Siri to the female voice after getting really annoyed at the amazingly sarcastic way that UK Siri uses ‘OK’ when starting a sentence. It sounds like his is saying ‘Ooo-kay, do-you-need-me-to-speak-slow-er-for-you?’. So annoying but I am learning to put up with it for better accuracy.

Siri now comes in different flavours in different countries so I can have the less annoying female voice but in the correct UK accent. It’s a shame that sometimes she sounds natural and sometimes robotic but the improvements are noticeable.

I really now only use Siri on the iPhone in the car and on the watch when cooking or walking outdoors. Siri feels naturally at home on a device with no natural input method and that is with you at all times. So long as there is a connection between your watch and phone you are good to go.

Wrap up

In just a few days (12th September) the new iPhones and WatchOS will be announced and so with iOS11 we will see Siri becoming more natural sounding. However the simple truth is that I would rather have a truly intelligent robotic sounding assistant than a dumb assistant that sounds human.

I really do think something has gone wrong with Siri’s development over there at Apple.

But on a positive ending…

Siri silliness

You can ask Siri all manner of things trying to get sensible answers but there are loads of ways to get silly answers out of her.

My favourite question of the moment: Siri do you watch game of thrones? There are many many answers so keep going! But when you do get bored you should ask her about Jon Snow.

9/10 so long as you get the references

 

Ken