Siri, the virtual assistant built into Apple’s iPhone 4S, seemed to catch competitors off guard. But all along, Google has reportedly been working on its own voice-controlled assistant for Android phones that responds to natural language.
The project is apparently codenamed Majel, and may see an initial release by the end of this year, Android and Me reports, based on unnamed sources. The codename is a reference to the Federation Computer in Star Trek,
whose full name is voiced by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry.
Android already supports voice commands, but the syntax is rigid. If you want to play music, you must say “Listen to…”, and if you want directions, you must say “Navigate to…” What makes Siri so interesting is that it responds to natural language. So if you want to find a place to eat, you could say “I’m in the mood for…” or “Show me some nearby restaurants.” The program picks up on keywords to figure out what the user wants. Reportedly, Majel will have similar capabilities.
The initial release will be limited to search queries, Android and Me’s Taylor Wimberly reports. Presumably that means you’ll be able to find nearby points of interest or get answers to questions, but won’t be able to perform phone actions such as navigation with natural language. Also, Wimberly hedges a bit by saying that January or February is a more realistic time frame for the arrival of Majel.
Although we’re still in rumor territory, Google has previously shown an interest in Star Trek’s ideas. In 2010, when the company acquired Phonetic Arts, whose technology generates computer speech from small voice samples, Google’s Mike Cohen said “we’re confident that together we’ll move a little faster towards that Star Trek future.” More recently, Google’s Android product management director Matias Duarte likened Siri to the droids of Star Wars–essentially, comic relief–whereas his company was inspired by Star Trek, in which everything is voice aware.
From those remarks, we at least know that Google has a vision, but only in vague terms. If the latest rumor is accurate, we may soon get a better idea of what the company is thinking, and how it plans to seriously compete with Apple and Siri.