How Will Cortana Cope With My Australian Accent?

“What’s the weather in Melbourne?” I ask Cortana, the newly-launched virtual personal assistant for Windows Phone 8.1. Given I’m in the US, I’m half-expecting to see the results from Melbourne, Florida. The reality is worse: I see the weather for Millburn, New Jersey, a place I have never heard of. This is the state-of-the-art for intelligent voice recognition when you’re an Australian.

Let me be clear: I know that Cortana has not yet been tuned in any way for Australian accents or Australian queries. It’s currently a US-only product, it’s in beta, and it’s hard to test its ability to scan your calendar or your contacts when you’re on someone else’s phone. But when I had the opportunity to try it out on some demonstration handsets, I couldn’t resist. It wasn’t unusable, but it certainly isn’t ready for prime-time use in Australia by any stretch of the imagination.

Just like its rivals (Siri on iOS, Google Now’s Voice Assistant on Android), recognition is rarely perfect even before the system tries starting to make sense of the query. In roughly half my informal tests, Cortana failed not because it can’t come up with the optimum response to my queries but because it simply misinterpreted what I said. This, for example, is what happened when I asked it “Where can I buy a roast chook?”

As you can see, when Cortana can’t understand a query at all, it reverts to using results from Bing. Annoyingly, this even includes the ads. I ran into this interpretation problem a lot, and eventually gave up on such sports-centric queries as “When is the next Tigers match?” because Cortana had absolutely no idea what I was saying.

When I could get Cortana to understand me, the results were sometimes OK, sometimes off-balance. It successfully told me who the prime minister of Australia was (but then couldn’t understand when I followed up with “What do you think of him?”), and what our population was.

I did eventually get it to find me the weather for Melbourne. Being a US product, the temperatures were in Fahrenheit, which is completely useless to me. Cortana easily converted it when I responded to those results with “How about in Celsius?”, which is quite a neat trick.

It also managed to give me information on Qantas Flight 12 (I chose a flight leaving the US to increase the likelihood of a result). If you search for a flight, Cortana also offers to set up an ongoing tracker for that feature:

It’s a neat trick, but again it only happened after I gave up on searching for QF108 because Cortana always thought I was saying “ice” instead of “eight”. And it got nowhere when I asked for a recipe for a Vegemite sandwich. That accent recognition is going to need some work.

Cortana does have a nascent sense of humour. When I asked “How do I get to Australia?”, it responded with this:

We’re not expecting to see Cortana down under until 2015, so there’s plenty of time for improvement. Whether I can wait that long for a roast chook and a Vegemite sanger is another matter.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Microsoft.

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