Getting on Speaking Terms With My iPhone: Voice Command

| Just a Thought

My iPhone 4 is a willful wench. I ask her to play songs by The Black Ghosts and she fires up an Annie Lennox tune. I give her an irritated glance and ask again, and again, she plays Annie Lennox.

I start to ask again, then decide on another tune, she’s young and impatient, and tells me, in that smarmy voice of hers, that music is already playing.

I know that! What I don’t know is why she insists on playing Annie Lennox.

There are times when she is all sweetness and helpful, like when I ask her to call my son.

“Toby’s home or mobile?” she asks with a saucy inflection on “mobile.”

“Mobile, please,” I reply, and the call is made. Sweetness!

Voice Command

Voice Command

Then there are times when she’s as obstinate as a merry-go-round mule. I ask her to find pizza, she plays Still Waters Run Deep by The Four Tops. Ask her to call pizza - I have the number, but don’t recall how I have it listed in my address book - she fires up Andreas Vollenweider. When I finally do recall my contact listing for my favorite pizza shop and ask her to call them, she becomes all sweetness again. “ Calling Pizzeria Valdiano.”

I suppose she has every right to be contrary with me. Until recently, I never verbally asked her for anything. Whenever I wanted something of her I would touch my request, and she has always came through.

Then, last week I travelled to Baltimore and discovered that the state has a strict, ‘No Gadget While Driving” law where you are forbidden to text or manipulate phones, music players, and other gizmos by hand while behind the wheel. It was a perfect opportunity for me to try out my iPhone’s Voice Control feature.

I had a pair of V-Moda Remix headsets on. I pressed and held the center remote button until she woke with a chime. When I asked her to call my sister, she did so with nary a complaint.

I was in love with her all over again and wondered why I hadn’t tried speaking my requests before. I soon realized, however, the limitations of her understanding and executing my verbal biddings. It has been a source of frustration since.

Almost anything I say to her has to be in terms of music or phone communication, it’s all she understands. Even then there are limitations.

If I ask for a specific song she’ll throw anything on and call it a day. Requesting Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, may yield Father Figure by George Michael. She will, however, deal out tunes from requested playlists, albums, or artists as deftly as any DJ. She’ll shuffle tunes or create a Genius Mix at my behest. She’ll even tell me what tune is playing if I ask her nicely.

I can solicit a call to anyone in my address book, even if I don’t remember the last name. If I ask her to call Tom, for instance, she’ll reply with a list of all the Toms in my contacts list, telling me the last names of each and wait patiently for my verbal selection. She will even call any number if I ask her to, but sometimes she gets it wrong and I have to correct her several times before the number is dialed. And now, with the iOS 4.2 update, I can ask her to initiate a FaceTime call.

My frustration continues with not being able to just tell her, in more general terms, who I want to call. I should be able to call for pizza, for example, just by saying, “Call pizza.” I have the term in the comments field of my favorite pizza parlor in my address book. Apparently, that’s not a field she looks at when attempting to fulfill my requests.

She will tell me the time if I ask her, but not the date; another source of frustration for me. She will, however, stop what she’s doing if I tell her to, and if I get confused I can ask her for help.

She can be a frustrating little minx at times, but I still love her. And just as your significant other may have trained you to curb certain behaviors irritating to her (or him), so has my iPhone trained me to only ask for certain things in certain ways. We have an understanding now, and I think we’ll continue to do just fine.

iPhone Voice Commands
“Play [playlist, album, artist, music]” example: “Play playlist Vern’s Jams” or “ Play songs by Morcheeba”
“Play more like this” [current tune]
“Shuffle” [playlist, album, artist]
“Next song” or “Next” [current tune]
“Previous song” or “Previous” [current tune]
“What song is playing?” or “Who sings this song?” [current tune]
“Pause” (Kind of useless)

“Dial [ contact name, contact number, any number]” example “Dial Mom” or “Dial BR-459”
“Call [ contact name, contact number, any number]”
“FaceTime [ contact name, contact number, any number]”
When asked for more info simply reply naturally. Example:
You: “Call Tom”
iPhone: “ There are multiple listing for Tom. Tom Jones, Tom Smith, or Tom Hanks?”
You: “Tom Hanks” or “Hanks”
If the iPhone repeats you command incorrectly you can correct it by saying “No” or “Wrong” and repeating the command.

General Commands:
“Cancel” or “Stop”
“What’s the time?” or “ What time is it?”



True story- I found out my iPhone isn’t that smart when I told it to “Open Facebook”, and it proceeded to answer “Calling Dentist” . Or maybe it is that smart. [Think about it. My brother had to point it out to me.]


I have to admit, I rarely use the voice interface with my iPhone (still 3Gs). I had a pair of ear buds that would trigger Voice Control for no apparent reason during my early morning workouts. It would try to respond to my breathing (panting) with something like ‘command not recognised’, and continue to interrupt my Podrunner track. I nixed the ear buds.

Since I have built in hands free in my car, I use that interface for most in-car dialling, and find that I simply do not use the phone (any phone when I can help it) much at all. Other media, yes. This is probably an adverse reaction to too many conference calls.

I think what I am waiting for, and this may be true for you as well, Vern, given the tenor of the above, is a Star Trek-like interface where I can open and execute apps by voice, and not just apps, but functions. I envision:

Me: Computer, place current call on hold and open Epocrates.

iOS: Epocrates open.

Me: Browse Formulary.

iOS: Formulary located.

Me: Find (drug X), specify paediatric dosing.

iOS: For children less than X kilos, the dose is X mg/kg divided thrice daily.

Me: Calculate dose for a child 13.7 kg and recalculate for twice daily dosing.

iOS: That dose is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics

Me: I know. Calculate anyway. Authorisation (provide my medical license number or some such).

iOS (with minimal delay): That dose is X mg per dose twice daily.

Me: Convert to text and send these instructions for patient X, in standard format, to Pharmacy Y.

iOS: Conversion complete. Dialling in prescription. Shall I copy billing as well?

Me: Yes, thank you. That will be all. Resume current call.

Okay, probably not anytime soon, but when that capacity arrives, I will switch from manual to voice in a heartbeat. My only hope is that they can make the voice sound like Majel Barrett (for non-Trekkers, the wife of Gene Roddenberry and voice for many of the Trek computers).


Pizzeria Valdiano’s pizza is great.

Vern Seward

@ Wab95: There was a time when I imagined an interface that would allow me to have an exchange like your example, but on a much larger system. I imagined a personal “central computer” tucked away in a closet in my home, and it patiently waited for voice commands. I think we’re close. Maybe not to the level of sophistication as in your example, put I should be able to ask for directions and call for pizza hands free. And so, we wait.

@ rjackb: Yes they are! I get my pizza exclusively from there.



Andreas Vollenweider??

I didn’t know anyone still listens to him. Great selection. smile


but I love the obscure cultural reference: “BR-549”


Why can’t it just have tags? At a certain point, if I have Domino’s and Papa John’s both tagged with “Pizza” it’d be great to have my iPhone ask “Domino’s Pizza or Papa John’s Pizza” similar to how it currently asks “John Smith or John Peters”.

Incremental changes, but it’s amazing how powerful this could become. (I LOVE the Epocrates example!)

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