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tech
by: Craig Wilson   ·    19 June 2017

The lowdown on virtual assistants

There are five noteworthy virtual assistants on the market, but not all of them are useful in South Africa just yet.

We’ve spoken about digital assistants before, but we’ve not looked at which of them is actually most useful in South Africa right now. Plus, with Apple’s recent announcement of a new speaker, called the HomePod, there’s a new contender vying for our attention, our voiced instructions and our hard-earned cash.

Introducing the band

There are five names to know when it comes to digital virtual assistants: Apple has Siri, Samsung has Bixby, Microsoft has Cortana, Google has Google Voice Assistant, and Amazon has Alexa. Apple, Google and Samsung’s offerings are primarily intended for mobile phones, though Apple has started integrating Siri into its laptop and desktop computer operating system, too.

Microsoft Cortana’s primary playground is on laptops and desktops running Windows, and Amazon’s Alexa is built into its Echo speaker range.

Of these, you’re likely to encounter all but Alexa. Amazon doesn’t officially sell the Echo devices here yet, and if you import one you’ll have to trick it into thinking you’re in a supported region (like the US or UK) for it to work. Even then, the functionality will be limited.

Band on the run

But buy an iPhone, iPad, MacBook, Windows PC, or Android phone and a voice assistant comes standard. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Voice Assistant and Samsung’s Bixby are probably the most useful because they work with the thing most of us have on us all the time: our smartphones.

You can use them to set alarms, countdown timers or reminders, look things up online, or dictate messages. But the level of support varies a lot. Siri, for example, has been opened to app developers, meaning it can now work with non-Apple apps. So where you used to only be able to dictate messages for Apple’s iMessage with Siri, you can now use it for WhatsApp, too.

Google’s offering is available on Android and Apple devices, but works more seamlessly on Android. It’s probably the best of the lot right now when it comes to not only recognising what you’re asking it, but understanding context. So, if you ask about the most popular tourist attraction in Paris it’ll tell you it’s the Eiffel Tower. Ask 'how tall is it?' within a minute and Google’s Voice Assistant still knows you’re talking about the Eiffel Tower.

Samsung’s Bixby, which is the newest arrival on the virtual assistant scene, is still pretty rudimentary compared to its rivals' offerings, but Samsung’s working hard to change that. And Bixby offers something the others don’t: Bixby Vision. Using the camera on the Galaxy S8 or S8+, Bixby Vision can offer on-the-fly translation of text (like Google Translate) or information about the thing you’re pointing your phone at, like what it is, where to buy it, or pictures of similar things from Pinterest.

Music and obedience

The next big move for virtual assistants is into our homes through audio gear. Amazon’s taken the lead here with the Echo range of devices (that now includes not just speakers but a device with a display, for those times you need to see instead of hear results), Google’s followed up with its Home speaker, and Apple recently announced the HomePod, a speaker that promises not just an integrated voice assistant, but high-end sound, too.

Why should you be excited about the Apple HomePod? Because it’s the smart speaker that’s most likely to be readily available in South Africa, and with Siri already offering a pair of South African voices (and an understanding of our accents) it may well prove to be the one that works the best.