Whatever you think of Apple's Siri, she's given voice to the idea that you can ask your handset for help. Despite frequent hiccups, I'm rather fond of the
chatty personal assistant inside my iPhone.
Now, a Spanish company called Sherpa has designs to out-duel Siri and take voice-enabled user interfaces to the next level.
On Wednesday, the company launched the English-speaking version of Sherpa the virtual voice assistant. The Sherpa assistant is already popular with a Spanish-speaking audience, having garnered more than 450,000 downloads since it became available as a beta in October in the Google Play Store. Siri only works on compatible Apple devices, while Sherpa hangs out on Android. Sherpa is the brainchild of CEO Xabier Uribe-Etxebarria, a serial entrepreneur.
I've had a chance to try the English version on a Samsung Galaxy S III, and she (yes, like Siri, a female voice) is also less than perfect. The company was still testing and implementing features leading up to launch (the product remains a beta). With that in mind, consider this more of a first look than final review.
You can see Sherpa's potential, and I appreciate Uribe-Etxebarria's long-term vision. He expects a perfect personal assistant to get to know you so it can predict your behavior. Then Sherpa might help organize your schedule and remind you of Mom's birthday. When you ask, "Where's a good place for sushi?" it might provide a list of places with your favorite rolls that also has an available table in the next 30 minutes.
Much of that comes later. For now, I started out by pitting Sherpa vs. Siri with a simple query: "Who is Barack Obama?" Sherpa returned a page with a picture of the president, his signature, a bio, and links to Google and LinkedIn results. Siri answered by saying, "OK, here's that contact," then listing the White House address. Round one to Sherpa.
Next: "What is the square root of 64?" Both Sherpa and Siri gave the correct answer, 8, but Siri gets the nod for more complete visual presentations of the problem.
Siri also gave the proper response when I asked for the stock price of Chevron, while Sherpa fumbled the request, at least when I asked for the quote by the name of the company. Sherpa did deliver the current price, but only when I methodically spelled out C-V-X as the stock symbol.
Sherpa bested Siri on my request to translate the phrase "open the window" to French (Ouvrez la fenetre). Siri asked if I wanted to search the Web for a solution.
Both Siri and Sherpa gave me the results of the previous night's basketball game between the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards; Sherpa added a few more game statistics than Siri displayed. But while Siri could tell me right away that the New Jersey Devils lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs the night before in a hockey game, Sherpa had to shuffle me off to ESPN's NHL page for the result.
On the iPhone, I was able to ask Siri to play the song Fallin' by Alicia Keys, and she obliged, because the song is in my iTunes library. I didn't have the song loaded on the Galaxy, but Sherpa could play it anyway. The reason is that Sherpa has access to a database of about 4 million music files. It was able to play, on request, Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones, Almost Cut My Hair by Crosby Stills Nash and Young (a poor-quality recording) and Yesterday by the Beatles. When I asked it to play My Way by Paul Anka (who wrote the lyrics), it played the Frank Sinatra version instead. And when I asked it to play Suit & Tie by Justin Timberlake, it played Sexyback instead.
Where Sherpa really gets potentially interesting is in making transactions. You can ask Sherpa to transfer money from your PayPal account to someone in your contacts.
And while Sherpa won't exactly substitute for a travel agent, you can ask it to help make complicated arrangements: I told Sherpa that "I need a flight from New York to Seattle, tomorrow, and come back Friday with my wife, 6-year-old son, and 9-year-old daughter." It then displays flight options via a relationship with lastminute.com. On that particular request, Sherpa showed flight options for two kids but only one adult, so I guess my wife or I would remain grounded. But for now, Siri can't help you with flights.
If you ask Sherpa to "take me to my next meeting," it will fire up a Google Map with the location of your next calendar appointment, if known.
Sherpa, like Siri, has a sense of humor, of sorts. When I asked it to tell me a joke, it came back with, "Can a kangaroo jump higher than the Empire State Building? Yes, because the Empire State Building can't jump."
When I told Sherpa, "I love you," she responded with, "Love is more than just words. ... Will you transfer me money on Paypal to prove your love?"
Finally when I asked Sherpa, "What is Siri?" she responded with "Siri is Latin for second best..."
I suspect Apple may have something to say about that.
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