NEWS - Thursday, April 3, 2014

It's Official: Cortana is the voice of Windows Phone

At some point or another, we all need assistance. From setting an alarm to ensure you wake up in the morning to writing important dates in an organizer (how analog!), everyone can use some help keeping life as chaos-free as possible. Your best bet is to get a personal assistant that will learn about you, the people in your life, the topics you care about, your routines and everything else that makes you unique. Of course, getting your own personal assistant is easier said than done, but that’s about to change for Windows Phone owners. Cortana, the world’s first truly personal assistant, is on her way to save the day.

As the AI who famously helped the “Halo” series’ Master Chief save the universe multiple times, Cortana clearly has the chops to organize your life, but bringing her to Windows Phone required a dedication to collaboration. “Cortana’s appearance in Windows Phone 8.1 is a result of years of work from researchers, engineers and designers across Microsoft,” says Windows Phone Group Program Manager Marcus Ash. “She is a combination of advanced technology across areas like search, natural language and machine learning that Microsoft has been able to bring to life, along with a distinct personality that is inspired by one of the biggest franchises in Xbox history.”

In addition to the teamwork on the technology side, it was important for the team to nail everything from Cortana’s persona and backstory to her outward appearance. To ensure they created , the team reached out to “Halo” developer 343 Industries for some needed input. Once the two teams were aligned, says Franchise Developer Director Frank O’Connor, they realized how much their respective Cortanas have in common. “One of the Cortanas is an intelligent, learning AI who is duty bound to help her companion as much as possible, using a staggering database of information combined with real, growing knowledge of that companion – and the other Cortana is, well, the same thing.”

True to form, Cortana begins learning about you from the moment you first speak with her. From then on, she stores any information she learns in her notebook (with your permission, of course) and uses it to make recommendations and suggestions tailored specifically to you. Beyond that, Cortana improves the more you interact, getting to know you better over time and delivering an experience that is continually improving. Like a real-life assistant, her biggest strength lies in her ability to adapt and predict your needs.

“Cortana is inspired by real personal assistants, so she acts like one,” says Ash. “A great example of this is for travel. Cortana knows when you’re planning to travel. She’ll track your flight, advise you when to leave early due to bad traffic, inform you of the weather at your destination, and keep you up-to-date on developments. Only Cortana provides “planners” for preparing for your day in morning and when you’re travelling somewhere new.” She can also set people-based reminders, like congratulating a friend on their promotion, then present the reminder when they next call, text or email.

Of course, the team knew that there would be times when you want more granular control over Cortana, which is why they built in a bevy of customization options. Want to type instead of speak? Go ahead, Cortana won’t speak again until you do. Trying to figure out why she makes certain suggestions? You can view and edit your interests, reminders, quiet hours, favorite places and more in her notebook.

While her biggest strength is her ability to improve your life through organization and adaptation, she’s more than just another digital assistant. According to Ash, “She has a personality and a unique sense of humor – someone you are happy to have on hand at all times. You can also chit chat with Cortana – ask her where she comes from or when she was born, ask her to sing a song, or ask her about other assistants, and she’ll have an answer.” To top it all off, Cortana will be voiced by Jen Taylor, the actress who provided the voice for the AI version in “Halo 4,” the most recent game in the series.     

The only question that remains is whether Cortana will be able to help you get better at “Halo 4.” When we posed the question to O’Connor, he simply replied, “Why don’t you ask her?”



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