When the iPhone 4S arrived last fall, one of the most talked about, and lauded, features was Siri, the virtual assistant. Able to understand real human language, Siri could answer questions, send text messages, update Facebook, and even tell jokes. Yet Siri was exclusive to the iPhone 4S, leaving older iOS and Android users wondering when they could enjoy the benefits of a smart and sassy digital helper. Now those users have a new option: Evi. Developed in the UK by True Knowledge, the Evi app also understands real language, can find answers, and provide some witty repartee. Most importantly, it's already available for most iPhone and Android platforms. So, is Evi a Siri killer? No, not really. But it is a quality app, and a sign that we've finally entered into the age of practical virtual assistants.
Released on January 23rd, Evi is still technically in beta. Most of the important functionality seems in place, however, as seen in the demo below. Users simply open the app, press the microphone icon and start talking. Evi can answer basic factual questions, guide users to relevant websites, call up requested Google maps, or even find recipes :
As is reportedly true for Siri, Evi's voice recognition is powered by Nuance, and it stands out as one of the best and most reliable features of the beta launch. (That licensing is also why Evi costs $0.99 at the Apple store, but is free on Android Market.) Regular readers may recall that I am often frustrated with voice recognition to the point of wishing violence on electronic devices. Yet Evi has gotten nearly every single one of my words correct. That's truly remarkable considering the speed at which I speak and the poor quality of my annunciation. Even other Nuance-enabled apps haven't been this good. In noisy environments Evi occasionally let the pick up run longer than necessary (thinking I was still talking) but once it processed the sound it still gave me the exact sentences I had uttered. The speech to text is just top quality. A virtual assistant needs to be able to take dictation, and Evi passes that test with flying colors.
Unfortunately, it's not always able to understand what I mean. Both Siri and Evi can handle natural language from speakers. One can simply ask questions as to another human, and either of these digital assistants will figure out the task the needs to be done by analyzing the sentence. However, like Siri, Evi seems to rely on parsing sentences into key words or phrases, and like Siri it sometimes makes errors of association. Use the word “sound” and Evi may call up web results for rock bands even if the question was “what does my voice sound like?”. These mistakes stand out because in general, Evi is eerily good at understanding what is being discussed. “What sound does a cow make?” works just fine. As do “what's your favorite color?”, “how do I get to a cafe from here?”, and “can a square be a rectangle?”.
It's important to point out that Siri and Evi, while similar on the surface, have very different code running on the back end. Siri has its own natural language processing originally developed at SRI in Silicon Valley (Apple acquired it a few years back). True Knowledge has their own approach to language, one that powers their online question answering services as well as Evi. As more users take advantage of True Knowledge, the company improves its language skills and (one assumes) Evi will get better as well. True Knowledge also has its own huge database of facts and information, with more than 635 million individual pieces of knowledge that it can use to extrapolate trillions of answers people may ask. Siri, on the other hand, is powered by Wolfram Alpha. At this stage in the game it's too early to say which system of language and data analysis is more helpful to the average Evi or Siri user.
What is clear, however, is that Siri is just light years ahead in term of practical and successful applications. Siri is embedded into almost every feature on the iPhone 4S, and I don't know a single user that hasn't begun to change the very way they approach the phone because of this broad integration. Texting, web searching, alarm setting, reminder emails, dictation...Siri does it all. Evi, on the other hand, seems like it's in a cage. It can call up web searches, Facebook updates, or maps, but it does this largely inside its own app. That makes Evi feel limited. An add on. Which, honestly, it is. Evi is an app to download, it's not a fully integrated assistant that seemingly lives in the phone. Siri is. And while that means comparing the two is unfair, users are going to make that comparison, and Siri wins hands down.
Another arena in which Siri wins is speed and reliability, but that may be temporary. Evi is still in beta, and since its launch the True Knowledge servers seem to be down more often than they are up. Even when Evi understands my requests, it has to drop more than half of them because it can't get the server to send it an answer. Reviews on the Apple store and Android Market are pretty low for Evi, and browsing through the comments makes it fairly clear that intermittent service is the primary culprit. True Knowledge has made fixing these server overloads a priority, so the situation may improve considerably. We shouldn't be so quick to damn a product for server issues when its still in beta, especially as its early popularity is the cause for its own slow service. Still, those hoping to download Evi today and get started may find themselves severely disappointed.
In the long run, however, Evi's arrival should be seen as a cause for universal jubilation. Siri is a marvelous product, but it's one that is severely limited in who can enjoy it. Most people don't own an iPhone 4S. Hell, most mobile users don't even own a smart phone. By opening up the Android and greater iOS markets, Evi is greatly expanding the use of virtual assistants, paving the way for them to become a standard feature of mobile devices.
Evi is also providing a desperately needed alternative to Siri. The more competition that Apple has in this space, the faster they will innovate, and the better products each company will develop. While I suspect that in the arena of vetted databases Wolfram Alpha and Siri will come out ahead of True Knowledge and Evi, the competition there is also very important. Having at least two sources for these kinds of facts is an absolute necessity to maintain their intellectual integrity.
In a sense then, Evi doesn't need to be better than Siri, it just needs to be really good, and it seems to be headed in that direction. The voice recognition is already top notch. Natural language analysis, and use of its proprietary databases is good and probably getting better. All Evi really needs to work on is integration with other apps (Facebook is a good start) and server reliability. Hopefully True Knowledge will fix those issues very soon. If they do, I see no reason why Evi won't take its rightful place in the pantheon of digital assistants. We've already got two options, and there's room for dozens more.
[image and video credits: True Knowledge]