Want A Virtual Assistant Now?

Yesterday Apple announced the new iPhone 4S. As we wrote, the the iPhone 4S looks the same as the iPhone 4, but its major technical features have been upgraded. Perhaps the most significant part of the announcement is the inclusion of the Siri speech recognition technology that can turn the iPhone into a virtual assistant.

Speech recognition is not new, nor is voice control of smartphones. Android has Voice Actions built-in to it’s search capabilities so that you can say “call Bob at work” or “navigate to the Detroit Institute of Arts.” The new version of Windows Phone also has built in voice control capability, and in fact, Microsoft had released an app called Voice Command that provided voice commands to Pocket PCs.

The problem with the voice control functionality on Android and Windows Phone is that they require you to learn a specific syntax. The commands have to include specific words so the software can determine what command you what it to perform. Siri stands out because it can recognize commands a variety of different ways, most of them in the syntax that one naturally say to another person. For more about how Siri works, watch the video at the end of this post.

So, if you don’t own an iPhone and want functionality similar to what Siri provides, what options exist? One option is Vlingo, which is available for all of the major smartphone platforms, including Android. Vlingo comes has some of the same functions as Siri, for example, you can use it to call someone, send a text message or an e-mail, but it does not have deep integration with Android so you can’t query your contacts or use it to add an appointment to your calendar.

Vlingo does have integration with Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. The app includes several widgets, including a small widget for your home screen that you tap to activate Vlingo’s voice prompt. To update your Twitter status you tap the widget, then say “Update Twitter I am listening to Twit live.” The Twitter app then opens with a new tweet populated, the translated text displayed for you to confirm and then post on Twitter. To find out where your Foursquare friends are you say “Where are my friends?” and Vlingo opens Foursquare with the listing of your friend’s last check-ins.

Another benefit of using Vlingo are its features aimed at preventing distracted drivers. You can configure Vlingo to automatically launch its In Car mode and enable SafeReader, which reads incoming text messages and provides you the ability to respond. The Vlingo In Car mode also supports a wake up command, with the InCar app open on your phone you can simply say “Hey Vlingo” and it will prompt you to speak a command.

As you can tell, Vlingo adds some very useful voice control to Android phones. While it is not as elegant as Siri, and has some of the same functions that comes with Android’s Voice Actions, I think it is a nice addition to an Android phone and best of all it is available for free in the Android Market.