Tag Archives: Siri

(Hopefully) Helpful Hint: Speak Your Mind

siriVoice-activated “personal assistants” have been getting more useful and skilled over the years, offering a hands-free way to call up information on the Web, make appointments in your calendar, get the temperature and all kinds of similar chores. But if you haven’t used either of the two big players lately, Apple’s Siri and the voice-command function in Google Now, you may be surprised at what they can do.

The Siri assistant got a lot of press when it first arrived on the iPhone 4S back in 2011. Unlike the simplistic voice-driven search of the day, Siri could handle questions on a variety of topics and even add a touch of personalization when presenting answers. She even turned up as a love interest for a character on The Big Bang Theory. (The name, incidentally, means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Norwegian.) Apple’s latest update to iOS 7 has improved the program and has even added a male voice option in the settings.

And then there’s Google Now. It’s also a virtual assistant that helps keep track of your daily life and interests  and can take spoken commands. Google Now with voice actions is available in the Google Search app for Android and iOS devices; the company recently released an extension for its Chrome browser that brings voice search to to the desktop when you utter the magic hotwords, “OK, Google.”

Although Google has had manually activated voice search for years, the Google Now software arrived in the summer of 2012 with Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) and has been growing ever since. The latest version of Android — 4.4, also known as KitKat — has more than 60 voice commands you can use with Google Now.

Want to give Siri or Google Now a shout? If you have Siri open on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch screen, tap the question mark in the corner for a list of sample questions or just ask away.Otherwise, just hold down the Home button on your iOS device until you hear the Siri beeps and see “What can I help you with?” appear on the screen. The Tech Blog has its own list of Siri commands and MacTrast’s infographic on the topic is also helpful.

If you’ve got the Google app open, tap the microphone icon at the top of the screen or say “OK, Google” and then ask your question. If you like visuals, check out Trendblog’s handy chart for what you can ask the latest version of Google Now. Google has its own list of Voice Action commands as well.

And even though it’s winter holiday time, don’t forget the Easter eggs!

PTJ 66: Bigger, Stronger, Faster

“Breaking Bad” rides off into the desert sun leaving El Kaiser wondering how it fared against other famous TV series swan songs and J.D. fills us in on the quickest ways to digitize business cards. In the news Amazon quietly releases two new Kindle models; Lenovo debuts an all-in-one desktop computer with a 29-inch display; Microsoft has a good week;  Facebook expands its Graph Search results; Apple deals with more security issues; researchers develop a  robotic prosthetic leg that is controlled by brain function; and Intelligent Glasses that can translate languages on the fly.

PTJ 66 News: We Have the Technology

The march of New Fall Products continues. Amazon quietly released two new Kindle models last week and Lenovo’s going widescreen with what it claims is an all-in-one desktop computer with the world’s first 29-inch display with a 21:9 aspect ratio.

It’s been a good week for Microsoft. Windows Phone is also clawing its way to the 10-percent mark in smartphone share, and according to analytics firm Net Applications, Windows 8 was running on almost 10 percent of devices using a Microsoft operating system last month. Windows 8 will soon give way to Windows 8.1 later this month, and Microsoft announced it’s rolling out its new optical character recognition feature for the SkyDrive online service that makes photos and PDF documents searchable in the cloud. The OCR feature will also be available through the Windows 8.1 Smart Search tool.

On the topic of search, Facebook is opening up Graph Search results to include user status updates and posts. So now publicly shared status updates, comments on anything, photo captions, Notes, and check-ins are all searchable. (Here’s a Graph Search settings checklist and some more information about adjusting your privacy settings if this sort of thing makes you at all nervous.)  In other Facebook news this week, the Social Network and its bird buddy Twitter, will start sending reports of your Likes and tweets about television shows to the major networks.

According the Engadget blog, Google has announced three dedicated Google Play vending machines in Japan that can dispense 18 different games. (As far as vending machines go, apps are not the most unusual things being dispensed.)

Apple is dealing with more security issues in iOS 7. The company just out its iOS 7.0.2 update to fix some reported lock screen holes and now another researcher has demonstrated how the Siri personal assistant technology can be used to start up a FaceTime call, which could allow hackers to invoke another security glitch in the iOS 7 software to access the phone app.

Speaking of holes, the US government shut down this week after weeks of squabbling among the houses of Congress and the executive branch. Here are some links to information about what’s still functioning in Washington. (Alas, the PandaCam has gone dark for the duration of the standoff, but some folks are trying to fill the PandaCam void.) Other parts of the Web were creaky and crashing as well, namely Affordable Healthcare Act servers for new customers trying to sign up. For those still trying to parse the new plans, the Health Law Helper site from Consumer Reports may be useful.

In other research:

legs

And finally, mobile giant NTT DoCoMo showed off the prototype of its so-called Intelligent Glasses that can translate text in an unfamiliar language into something the wearer of the glasses can read. The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades — and who knows, those shades just might be able to direct you to a restroom in Rio or decipher a menu in Milan. Someday.

Episode 45 News: “Now” and Then

We’ve moved into the month of May, so fans of summer movies and Macs are buzzing. Six weeks ahead of Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference, the 9to5Mac site claims it has exclusive information about the next release of OS X. The upcoming iOS 7 software is said to be sporting a new look as well — possibly moving to the “flat” design currently favored by Google and Microsoft, where plain backgrounds are accented with bold color buttons devoid of 3D effects like rendered shadows and gradations.

While LG Electronics is moving from flat to curvy with what it calls the world’s first curved OLED screen, the whole “flat” seems to be working for Microsoft, on the mobile front, anyway. According to the firm Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, the Windows Phone OS grew from 3.7 percent of the US market share at the end of March 2012 up to 5.6 percent the first quarter of 2013. (Maybe those sassy TV ads for Windows Phone are also helping.) But Microsoft is doing more with voice-work than just pumping out handsets — the company now has the make-Skype-calls-directly-from-your-Outlook.com-inbox feature up and running, in the United Kingdom anyway, with more countries on the way.

Google Now, the Big G’s voice-assisted life helper program for mobile devices, arrived this week for iOS as part of an update to the Google Search app. Battery-burn accusations aside, Business Insider and other sites report that Google Now actually seems to be more useful than Apple’s own Siri assistant, while also noting the irony that Google Now doesn’t actually work on a lot of phones running older versions of Google’s own Android system.

graceA new study from North Carolina State University has found that older programmers know more than their younger counterparts about recent software platforms and that the skills and knowledge of the veteran coders improves over time. The full paper is titled “Is Programming Knowledge Related to Age?” (Code wranglers and others who work odd hours might want to know that McDonald’s may be expanding availability of its delicious breakfast meals.)

In security news, the Syrian Electronic Army, which claimed it was behind last week’s hack attack on the Twitter feed of the Associated Press, is also targeting other organizations like the Guardian, National Public Radio and Al Jazeera. The Twitter account of Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA and notable controversial newsmaker himself, was also compromised.

Like the airline industry, the travel search-and-bookings business is getting a little smaller thanks to mergers and acquisitions. As announced last fall, Priceline.com bought the sprightly little Kayak service and last month, Expedia.com bought Trivago, a German hotel search site. As detailed in a story in the New York Times this week, some travel industry analysts don’t think the companies will tamper with the search-engine formula, but the British Office of Fair Trading is taking a closer look.

The Internet — and the Web in particular — have made travel, shopping, cat videos and plenty of other things in life much easier, and it’s time to wish it a happy birthday this week. On April 30, 1993, CERN made the announcement that the World Wide Web would be expanding from its scientific and research origins and become free to anyone out there in the public domain. The CERN site has a short history of the Web, along with a link to a 1993 copy of the first Web site.

And finally, while some people may not have predicted just how popular the World Wide Web would be 20 years later, others are actively campaigning for a pre-emptive international ban on…killer robots. Yes, there is  an official movement known as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and the group seeks to halt the production of weapons that can attack targets without human intervention. For those who want to know more, a 50-page report released last fall from Human Rights Watch outlines many of the ethical concerns over fully autonomous weapons and the danger to civilians. Here’s hoping the future turns out to be more like The Jetsons and less like The Terminator

Talk That Talk

Smartphones make it easy to get the news headlines, weather forecasts and updates from your friends on social media where ever you are, but what if you don’t have time to read? Over the past couple of years, apps that read for you have been popping up all over. Like Apple’s Siri personal assistant, which can talk back and bring you info, some of these apps respond to voice commands. Some, however, are literally just read-only.

Many apps use the text-to-speech function built into the phone. Granted, some of these are better than others and the technology has come a long way since the Mac’s text-to-speech robot voice. But as the need for decent accessibility programs has increased to help people with vision impairments use the technology, the speech has gotten better.

winstonSo what’s out there? The Winston app for iOS is one example. Once you install it on your phone and tell it what you want to hear, Winston delivers an audio briefing any time you want.

The app recites a few of the more recent status updates from your Facebook and Twitter feeds and also reads an RSS-style summary of new headlines in your favorite categories. This sort of thing can be useful when you’re busy doing other stuff, like trying to get out of bed, making coffee or cooking breakfast.

Winston, shown here, uses a male voice with a British accent. (You can pretend it’s Alfred, but the folks behind its Twitter account told me they were big fans of Carson and Bates from Downton Abbey.) But it does have a nice, classy sound to it as it reads Facebook updates about the idiot things your friends did last night. It’s free and you can stream it over AirPlay-connected devices.

An Android version of Winston is said to be under development. Until then, if you have an Android phone, the iHear app for Android can read Facebook and Twitter updates.

Now, it you want more of a dedicated talking-alarm clock for your phone, you have plenty to choose from in your app store.

There’s a $3 iOS app called Wake Smarter that responds to voice commands for things like reading your Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. It also has programmable alarm clock and sleep timer functions, plus relaxing photos for wallpaper.

On the Android side, there’s Wakeful, the Talking Alarm Clock, which updates you on weather, stocks and the latest headlines. BedBuzz has similar powers but that app says it does not use the built-in text-to-speech function and sounds more natural. The $3 WakeVoice app is another option that responds to your voice and can read RSS feeds out loud. Senti Wayk is yet another similar Android app under development.

Cars have been getting into the voiceover action the past few years as well. The Chevy Cruze with the special OnStar service (remember that commercial?) is one attempt at bringing social media to the driving experience. The Ford Sync software is also adding Facebook integration, in case you just can’t bear to miss what’s going there. But since Facebook seems to influence moods, do you really want to have that distraction while driving?

Yeah, perhaps it’s best to stick with your favorite road-mix playlist there, and leave the read-aloud updates for those more stationary moments at home in the kitchen.