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Getting the Most from Siri for Navigation, GPS, and Location-based Services

Road Testing the Apple iPhone 4S Siri Personal Assistant Software

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Siri for GPS, Navigation, Travel Services

The Siri personal assistant software for the iPhone 4S is a practical and useful helper when you travel.

Apple

Siri is the voice-driven personal assistant software built into the iPhone 4S. Despite all of the excitement about her dry sense of humor, Siri is a very practical assistant who is strongest at everyday tasks you are most likely to use regularly (especially after the novelty of asking her to "open the pod bay doors" wears off).

I was very curious about how well Siri handles the broad set of navigation and location-based services she might be expected to handle, so I put her through extensive on-the-road testing. Siri uses A-GPS to determine your location wherever you go, and based on that, she can find and direct you to a wide range of services all around you.

And since Siri is voice-driven and responds back to you with speech (as well as text), I wanted to find out if she can reduce distraction and help improve safety while driving.

Finding an ATM is a good example. You activate Siri simply by pressing and holding the iPhone 4S home button, or lifting the phone to your ear if you're not making a call. One of Siri's great strengths is her ability to understand requests phrased in many different ways. This is a refreshing change from typical in-car systems, which require you to learn and speak set phrases in order to get anything done. To find an ATM with Siri, I got correct responses from phrases including "take me to the nearest ATM," "how do I get to the nearest ATM," or just simply, "ATM".

One thing you'll quickly learn when using Siri is that you don't have to use complete phrases to get things done. Usually, a one- or two-word request will start Siri accurately searching for the nearest resource, with examples including "coffee," "restaurant," "gas station," "dry cleaner," etc. This capability of parsing intention from just a word or two also sets Siri well above most other voice-recognition systems, which require some vocal drill-down of set phrases to get things done.

Roadside Assistance and Emergency Services
Siri is useful, but limited, when it comes to roadside assistance and emergency services. Tell Siri "emergency" and she will fetch a list of hospital emergency rooms nearby. I think this is where Apple's Siri team should have stepped in and thought hard about what "emergency" means, and pre-programmed a set of responses that would better encompass how to help someone in an emergency, including options for dialing 911, ambulance, tow trucks, etc.

If you simply tell Siri "911," she'll start talking about calendar appointments on September 11. If you tell Siri to "call 911," she will dial 911 immediately. Don't try this unless you really do need to reach 911.

Siri as a Travel Helper
Siri stands out as a travel helper. It can be startlingly easy to find specific things you commonly need as you travel, including restaurants (and specific types of restaurants), rest stops, and gas stations. Afer you've made your request, you may verbally select from among presented options and get kicked over the Maps app for directions and reviews.

Siri for Direct Navigation
Siri's greatest strength in direct navigation is her ability to understand complete addresses without parsing through set verbal or touch menu options. If you've used in-car nav systems with voice recognition, you're familiar with the drill of laboriously speaking through (and often repeating loudly) city, state, address to get a destination set. Siri almost always nails the complete address when you speak the whole thing in one sentence, and even if you mix up how you present the order of the address. That's impressive technology and very useful.

The big downside of using Siri for navigation, for now, is that the only app connected to Siri is the Apple Maps app. Maps isn't bad at providing routes, but it has nowhere near the sophistication and utility of the top GPS turn-by-turn spoken-directions apps on the market. I think it's just a matter of time until Apple provides the API for Siri to tap into GPS navigation apps, but it's not here yet.

Siri for Public Transportation and Bike, Walking Routes
Siri's performance is generally very good for locating public transportation options. She has no trouble with requests for nearest bus and train stations and stops. She is not yet capable at bicycling or walking routes, though. If you request "bicycle route to (destination town or address)" she'll draw a blank. Same for walking or pedestrian requests. Once you get into the Maps app with a simple directions request, however, you may select public transportation or pedestrian options.

Location-specific Reminders
Siri connects with the iOS5 Reminders app to provide location-specific reminders. You may set up geofences around work, home, grocery store, and other locations, and ask Siri to present you with a to-do item when you enter or exit a geofenced area.

Location and GPS Utility
Some things that I think Siri is well-capable of, but haven't been enabled yet, are more specific technical location and GPS functions. For example, ask Siri "What are my coordinates (or latitude and longitude)," and she draws a blank. Same for simple requests, such as "which way is north?" or "what is my elevation?" That data is easily within her reach, but not programmed in yet.

One of the impressive things about Siri is that this is only the beginning. The shortcomings I address here will likely be improved in future free software updates. Her outstanding voice-recognition, and the ability to tie speech commands to specific apps and actions provide a strong foundation for amazing location and travel services on the iPhone 4S and other Apple devices in the future.

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