You really don’t have to be “into technology” these days to know a thing or two about Apple products. It seems that the company that Jobs built (with the help of countless others) has established itself the technological Mecca of the Z Generation. If Apple builds it, even Gen Xers know about it.
Take the iPhone 4s for instance. There are few people in what can be loosely termed as ‘The Civilized World’ who haven’t at least read or heard a blurb about its launch. The technorati had initially weighed in saying that the evolutionary 4s was underwhelming, that the faster processor, better camera and updated OS almost induced yawns as it merely allow Apple to catch up to what other smartphone were doing. There was a lot of poo-pooing and sighing, and a few predictions, especially in light of the passing of Apple’s ex-head honcho, that Apple had seen better days and may be in its twilight years.
That is, until they spoke to Siri.
Let me take a sidestep for a minute.
Many years ago I had aspirations of becoming a SciFi writer. I had written a handful of short stories that I passed around to my friends to read. They, being true friends, praised my musings and encouraged me to get published. Publishers, on the other hand, were less receptive, and rightfully so. What I sent them, while containing good ideas and was sporadically decent technically, was, on a whole, terrible. Story after story was returned from editor after editor. I finally gave up, for a while anyway.
In several of my stories I described a voice-based interaction between characters and computers that was so similar to Siri that I got goosebumps when I watched a Siri demo. Of course, my simple stories weren’t the first to explore a vocal interface between man and machine, in fact, that interaction happens so often in SciFi that it’s taken for granted. Nobody gave Star Trek’s voice activated computer a second thought, and why would they. Kirk and crew traveled faster than light, phased Romulans into space dust, and shielded against all manner of hostilities, why wouldn’t the computer on the Enterprise be smart enough to understand the subtle nuisances of spoken English (or Klingon for that matter)?
And what about the Robot in Lost in Space? It could have just flashed a red light and made funky noises instead of yelling, “Danger Will Robison!!” That rolling computer turned into a veritable nanny to Will Robinson and gullible accomplice to Dr. Smith, all without anyone ever touching a keyboard.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Talking to your computer instead of typing to it, and having it talk back, was one of the staples of futuristic living, along with instant meals and flying cars. The instant meals and the flying cars have a ways to go, but with Siri on your iPhone, chatting up your personal silicon assistant just took a giant step forward.
Well, for iPhone 4s users anyway. The rest of us iOS gadget owners are left out in the Siri-less cold.
Or are we?
Maybe we can’t match the seamless integration that Apple created with Siri on the 4S, but we can at least get an idea of what life might be like with a gadget as a personal assistant. Perhaps we can turn our iPhone 4 into iPhone 4(-S). Not quite a 4S, but, well, sort of. And yep, there are apps for that. Several, in fact.
The first one is actually a (very) distant cousin of Siri. Dragon Dictation is a freebie from Nuance, the folks who had an indirect hand in presenting Siri (while the real magic of Siri is the artificial intelligence underneath the service, Apple is using Dragon’s speech recognition technology to handle your input).
Unlike Siri, Dragon Dictation is an app specifically designed to take your mutterings and turn them in to written text. From there you can save the text as a document or send it to friends and family as a text message or email.
Like Siri, the accuracy of Dragon Dictation will astound you. In fact, I spoke that last sentence into my iPhone and the text you read is what it returned. The only thing I needed to do was capitalize Dragon Dictation.
When Dragon Dictation first appeared, people were fascinated by its potential, but the app, as a hands-free text machine, is good in its own right.
So users of iPhone 4 or 3GS, with Dragon Dictation you can’t ask your phone to tell you how to get to where you want to go, but you can dictate a chapter about the trip along the way.
If sophisticated Siri has a younger brother, Dragon Go! would be he.
Dragon Go! is the silent type. It won’t give you the cool conversations that Siri likes to engage in. You ask it to do something and it will earnestly try to do it.
Ask it to give you info about the Milky Way and it will do a Google search and display the appropriate hits. When you want directions to the nearest Apple Store, it fetches a map and routes it for you. Want to listen to some jazz? Tell it to play jazz on Pandora and it will display some jazz oriented stations.
Don’t expect it to fully understand your mumbles. Unlike Siri, you have to be more precise in your asking. You can ask about the weather or the meaning of life, but don’t expect a verbal response or anything more than a fairly general list of apps and websites that may answer your question.
Still, Dragon Go! is free and it works.
OK, if you really want to Siri, but, for whatever reason, must settle for a stand-in, take a look at Vlingo.
Vlingo isn’t fully integrated like Siri, but it will send a text message for you, or an email, or find a restaurant. However, ask, “is it going to rain today?” and it will return websites with that phrase. Not a good response.
Again with the silent treatment, there’s no conversation with Vlingo. You ask specific questions, it gives you so-so answers. At least you didn’t have to type it.
Vlingo is free and worth at least a look-see. Or is that a speak-see? Whatever.
That’s a wrap for this week. More speak-freebies below with direct links.