How To Turn Your Phone Into A Mind-Reading Personal Assistant

Smartphones are actually pretty dumb. They can only do what you tell them to do, and manually entering information gets tedious. But you can make your phone smarter and turn it into a mind-reading personal assistant that informs you of important information as you need it, such as traffic information or shopping reminders, and even send text messages for you automatically. Here's how to do it.

Title image remixed from VLADGRIN (Shutterstock).

What You'll Get

The purpose of this setup is to make your phone give you information as you need it, rather than you having to constantly ask it about traffic conditions, your calendar events and other important stuff. When you're done, your phone will be able to such things as:

  • Give you a notification you when it's time to leave for your next appointment or event, based on traffic and your current location
  • Public transport info, including where the nearest station is, the best route and how long it will take you to arrive at your destination
  • Send an automatic text message to your friends or family when you're on your way to meet them, with estimates on when you'll arrive
  • Notify you when you arrive at a location with a to-do item attached to it, such as getting milk when you pass the supermarket
  • Let you know if an upcoming flight has any delays, gate changes or other important info, as well as when to leave to get to the airport on time
  • Store your gift cards and vouchers so you always have them with you (and notify you when they're usable if you have an iPhone)
  • Give you quick access to the local hotspots, currency conversions and language translations when you're travelling

Here's how to set it up on both Android and iOS.

Android

Android users are lucky since many of the above features are available in Google Now, one of the coolest new features of Jelly Bean. But you can also grab other apps to enhance the experience.

Never Be Late, Keep Track of Your Calendar and Travel Smart with Google Now

Let's start with Google Now. Google Now uses your search history and location to determine what you're interested in, where you're going, and give you information based on those things. It's technically only for Jelly Bean devices, but Ice Cream Sandwich users can get it too with a simple little hack. Once you have it, here's what you need to do to get the most out of it:

  1. On your desktop computer or your phone, head to Google's Search History Page and turn your search history on. Without this, Google won't be able to use your search history to give you information.
  2. Go to Google Latitude's Location History Settings and make sure your Location History is also turned on. This will help Google Now find your place of work and other locations so it can let you know what traffic is like when you're commuting.
  3. If you haven't already, make sure to turn on Location Services on your phone as well. You can find these in your phone's Settings > Location Services.

Once you've done that, Google Now will start popping up "Cards" based on the things you search for and what it knows about you. Here are some examples. Note that for each of these, you can tweak its settings by going to "Show Sample Cards" at the bottom of the Google Now screen.

Traffic: When you search for a location, Google Now will bring up a map with travel time and traffic information. It will also do it automatically during your commute to and from work (if you've set those locations in Latitude). By default, it uses driving directions, but you can change it to public transport directions in the settings. You can also change the priority of the card depending on traffic: by default, it will show up higher on the list if traffic is heavy, and lower on the list if traffic is normal.

Appointments and Other Events: Google Now will also scan your calendar for events and let you know what's coming up next. If that event has a location, it will give you the travel time and traffic information for getting there. It will even take that information and calculate when you should leave, notifying you at just the right time so you won't be late.

Public Transport: If you use a lot of public transport, you can have Google Now notify you when you're near a bus or train station, as well as give you schedules on when the next bus or train arrives. (It doesn't work everywhere and it's not always accurate, but it's useful when it works.)

Flights: If you search for a flight number using Google, Google Now will hang onto that info and give you a card with that flight's status, terminal, departure and arrival time, plus driving directions to the airport.

Travel Info: If you're travelling, Google Now recognises you're not at home and provides you with all sorts of travel tools, including a quick translation card, quick currency conversions for the country you're in, and a card that tells you what time it is back home. Of course, for more translation powers, you might also want to check out Google Goggles, which can translate text from a picture you take on your phone -- perfect for signs, menus and other things you find in your travels.

Google Now can also give you weather updates, sports scores for your favourite teams, and show you nearby places of interest, but these are some of its smarter functions. To see everything it can do, tap the "Sample Cards" button at the bottom of the Google Now interface.

Get Reminders at Just the Right Time with Spoty

I pass by the supermarket on my way home every day, yet I often forget to stop and grab milk. Spoty is a location-based reminders app that fixes this problem. You input different locations into Spoty -- the supermarket, the bank, your house -- and it will send you important notifications when you arrive at those places. So it can remind you to pick up milk, do laundry or any other task tied to a specific location.

Spoty is the cheapest and simplest option for this on Android. Not only does it give you reminders, but you can even set it to send a text message when you arrive at a location. This is handy for letting someone know when you're approaching (no need to dangerously text while driving).

A few other to-do apps also perform this functionality. If you're already a user of Astrid or Remember the Milk, two of our most popular to-do list apps, you already have these features built in. Astrid users will need Locale and the Locale plugin installed. You can also perform similar things with automation apps such as Tasker and On{X}, if you so desire.

Find Nearby Hotspots with Yelp

Google Now lets you know of nearby restaurants, but we prefer Yelp (where available). While Google gives you a seemingly random list of just a few locations, Yelp will provide you with a very nice list of nearby restaurants and other locations sorted by rating, price and lots of other features.

Store Your Gift Cards, Vouchers and More with PassWallet

It's easy to forget to bring the relevant gift cards and vouchers when you go shopping. PassWallet solves this problem, bringing support for Apple's Passbook to Android. Whenever you stumble upon a service that supports Passbook, PassWallet will import them so you have them with you at all times.

Unfortunately, PassWallet does not send you notifications when you enter a participating location, as Passbook does on iOS. But since we're including Passbook in the iOS section below, we thought PassWallet was at least worth a mention.

Stay Up to Date on Travel Arrangements with TripIt

While Google Now can give you flight info, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention TripIt, our favourite travel organiser. TripIt scans your email inbox for incoming travel reservations, then grabs the necessary information and puts it into a simple app on your phone with everything you could possibly need to know about your flight: departure and arrival times, confirmation numbers, delays, seat numbers and more. On the day of your flight, you don't need to do anything except open TripIt -- perfect for making that holiday totally stress-free.

On iOS

iPhone users have to do a bit more work than Android users, but the iPhone has a few features that Android and Google Now users don't get. Here's what you'll need for a mind-reading personal assistant on iOS.

Never Be Late Again with GoTime

Setting aside travel time for your next appointment is a pain: you need to look at your calendar to find out where it is, look up traffic info on the net, and get yourself driving directions. GoTime does this all automatically for you. It scans your calendar for any upcoming events, then notifies you when you need to leave based on your current location and how long it will take you to get there. You can set it to use driving directions or public transport directions (as long as you're on iOS 5), so you'll never be late again.

Make Your Calendar Smarter with Cue

Your personal calendar is great, but you have to manually add notes, locations, contact info and other stuff if you want to get anything out of it. Cue is a smart calendar for iOS that gives you all the info you need to know, when it matters most. If your calendar merely says "Dinner with Tom", Cue will search your email, contacts, social networks and other services to find out who Tom is, where the dinner is being held, and automatically add all that information to your calendar for you. So, when you go to Cue and tap on "Dinner with Tom", it will know where it is based on your email exchange with Tom from yesterday, give you links to call him and provide driving directions. Turn on Cue's push notifications and you'll always have an up-to-date set of info right when you need it.

Get Reminders at Just the Right Time with Checkmark

I pass by the supermarket every day on my way home, yet I often forget to stop and grab milk. Checkmark is a location-based reminders app that fixes this problem. You input different locations into Checkmark -- the supermarket, the bank, your house -- and it will send you important notifications when you arrive at those places. So it can remind you to pick up milk, do laundry or any other task tied to a specific location.

We like Checkmark because it's very easy and quick to use -- all it takes is a few taps to do anything. However, if you already use the built-in Reminders app on iOS, it can do location-based notifications as well -- it just takes a few more taps to work, so we don't find it as efficient.

Let Your Friends Know You're On Your Way with Twist

So you've made sure you aren't late and you have all the info you need for your next appointment, but maybe traffic hits and you're going to be a little late. Twist is a smart app that keeps track of your current location and where you're headed from your calendar, and automatically texts your friends when you've left and your ETA. If it changes, it will keep them up to date. That way you don't have your friends calling you asking you where you are when you're trying to get there as fast as you can.

Remember Your Gift Cards, Vouchers and More with Passbook

It's easy to forget to bring the relevant gift cards and vouchers when you go shopping. If you're on iOS 6, you can use the built-in Passbook app to help you remember. Whenever you stumble upon a service that supports Passbook, it will automatically save your voucher so you have them with you at all times.

Find Nearby Hotspots with Yelp and AroundMe

Yelp, if it's available in your city, can provide you with a list of nearby restaurants and other locations sorted by rating, price and lots of other features. AroundMe has a great database of businesses, tells you what's nearby, and gives you easy access to driving directions, phone numbers and restaurant menus. The only thing it doesn't really have is Yelp's big community, so you can't see which places are good (and which places are duds). That said, it can be useful for finding the nearest ATM or post office.

Stay Up-to-Date on Travel Arrangements with TripIt and Just Landed

When it comes to travel, we can't recommend TripIt highly enough. TripIt scans your email inbox for incoming travel reservations, then grabs the necessary information and puts it into a simple app on your phone with everything you could possibly need to know about your flight: departure and arrival times, confirmation numbers, delays, seat numbers and more. On the day of your flight, you don't need to do anything except open TripIt -- perfect for making that holiday totally stress-free.

If you just have to pick someone up from the airport, Just Landed is an awesome app. It will tell you when you need to leave based on your current location and your travel time to the airport. It will also track the flight in question, letting you know whether it's early, on time or delayed.

Survive in a Foreign Country with Google Translate and Currency Converter HD

It can be hard to adjust when you're travelling overseas: you've got foreign languages to deal with, currency conversions and a city you know nothing about. Your phone can help make things a little bit easier. Google Translate can translate just about anything for you via text or voice. The Goggles feature of Google Search can translate anything you can take a picture of -- perfect for signs, menus and other written words. Lastly, if you need a good currency converter, Currency Converter HD is solid, providing you with a simple interface for converting to any currency you want. Armed with these few apps, you should be able to make your stay much less stressful.

Your phone can't really read your mind, but it can see where you're going, what you're doing and what you need to know at any given moment. Armed with the right information and apps, you should be able to spend a lot less time looking things up and a lot more time getting things done, which is exactly what smartphones are for in the first place.


Comments

    "How to turn your phone into a mind-reading personal assistant"

    Just use Facebook. Pretty soon your phone will know everything about you, whether you want it or not. amirite?

    I think it's kinda irresponsible to suggest to people that they should turn on a service like Google Now without at least mentioning the severe privacy issues associated with it. Google's long and sad history with privacy suggests that they will be making other uses of all that data about you.

      Although this wont absolutely shut down your point regarding privacy issues, Many people are unaware of http://www.dataliberation.org/. An engineering team within Google.

        Does this get a copy of your data out, or get your data out? May be a LH article in this one...

    Specifically which parts of Google's privacy policy concern you?

    Did you read Lifehacker's recent articles (ie. past 2 days) about how free business make money and whether you are the product or the customer?

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