What is a Virtual Assistant and how does it work?
How smart speakers and assistants are transforming our lives
A virtual assistant is an application that can understand voice commands and complete a user’s tasks. Virtual assistants are available on most smartphones and tablets, on traditional computers, and now even on standalone devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
They combine specialized computer chips, microphones, and software that listen to the specific commands you give them and generally respond with a voice that you select.
While virtual assistants can also refer to people doing administrative work for others, this article is about smart assistants living on our smartphones and other smart devices.
The basics of virtual assistants
There are five main virtual assistants on the market (others exist but are not as popular):
- Google Assistant
Virtual assistants like these can do everything from answering questions, telling jokes, playing music, and controlling items in your homes like lights, thermostats, door locks, and smart home devices. They can respond to many voice commands, send text messages, make phone calls, set reminders. Whatever you do on your phone, I can probably ask your virtual assistant to do it for you.
Even better, virtual assistants can learn over time and learn about their habits and preferences, making them always smarter. Using artificial intelligence (AI), virtual assistants can understand natural language, recognize faces, identify objects, and communicate with other smart devices and software.
The power of digital assistants will only grow, and it is inevitable that sooner or later (if it has not already done so), you will use one of these assistants. Amazon Echo and Google Home are the top smart speaker options, although we hope to see models from other brands in the future.
How to use a Virtual Assistant
In most cases, you will have to “wake up” your virtual assistant saying his name (Hey Siri, OK Google, Alexa). Most virtual assistants are smart enough to understand natural language, but you have to be specific. For example, if you connect Amazon Echo with the Uber app, Alexa may request a ride, but you have to formulate the command correctly. You have to say, “Alexa, ask Uber to request a ride.”
Normally you will need to speak to your virtual assistant because he is listening to the voice commands. Some assistants, however, may respond to written commands. For example, iPhones running iOS 11 or later can write questions or commands to Siri instead of speaking them. Also, Siri can reply by text instead of voice if you prefer. Similarly, Google Assistant can respond to commands written with voice (choice of two) or text.
On smartphones, you can use a virtual assistant to adjust settings or complete tasks such as sending a text, making a phone call, or playing a song. With a smart speaker, you can control other smart devices in your home, such as a thermostat, lights, or security system.
How virtual assistants work
Virtual assistants are what are called passive listening devices that respond once they acknowledge a command or greeting (such as “Hello Siri”). Passive listening means that the device is always listening to what’s going on around it, which raises privacy concerns. These concerns have been highlighted by smart devices that serve as witnesses to crimes.
The virtual assistant must be connected to the Internet to be able to search the web and find answers or communicate with other smart devices. However, since they are passive listening devices, they usually need a surveillance job to activate. That said, it is not unheard of for the device to start recording without an activation word. It was a case about an Echo that witnessed a murder that drew public attention to this fact.
When you communicate with a virtual voice assistant, you can activate the assistant and ask your question without pause. For example: “Hey Siri, what was the result of the Real Madrid-Barcelona match?” If the virtual assistant doesn’t understand your order or can’t find an answer, they will let you know. You can try again by rephrasing your question or speaking louder or slower. In some cases, there may be some comings and goings, like asking for an Uber. You may have to provide additional information about your current location or destination.
Users can activate smartphone-based virtual assistants like Siri and Google Assistant by pressing and holding the home button on the device. Then you can write your question or request, and Siri and Google will reply with a text. Smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo, can only respond to voice commands.
The most popular Virtual Assistants
Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, is integrated into the Amazon Echo line of smart speakers. You’ll also find it on some third-party speakers from brands like Sonos. You can ask Echo questions like “what movie are they releasing this week?” You can also ask him to play a song, make a phone call, or control your smart home devices. It also has a feature called “multi-room music” that lets you play the same music on each of the Echo speakers. You can also set up the Amazon Echo with third-party apps, so you can use it to call an Uber, get a recipe, or guide you through a workout.
The Samsung version for virtual assistants is Bixby, which is compatible with Samsung smartphones running Android 7.9 Nougat or higher. Like Alexa, Bixby responds to voice commands. It can also give you reminders about upcoming events or tasks. You can also use Bixby in conjunction with your camera to shop, get a translation, read QR codes, and identify a location. For example, you can take a photo of a building to get information about it or take a photo of a product you want to buy. You can also take a photo of a text that you want to translate. Bixby can control most of your device’s settings and can mirror your phone content on most Samsung smart TVs.
Cortana is Microsoft’s virtual digital assistant that comes installed on Windows 10 computers. It is also available as a download for Android and Apple mobile devices. Microsoft has also partnered with Harman Kardon to launch a smart speaker. Cortana uses the Bing search engine to answer simple queries and can set reminders and respond to voice commands. You can set reminders based on time and location, and even create a photo reminder if you need to pick up something specific in the store. To have Cortana on your Android or Apple device, you will have to create or log in to a Microsoft account.
The Google Assistant is available on many Android phones, including the Google Pixel smartphones, as well as the Google Home smart speaker, and some third-party speakers from brands like JBL. You can even set it up on an iPhone.
You can also interact with the Google Assistant on your smartwatch, laptop, and TV. Although you can use specific voice commands, it also responds to a more conversational tone and follow-up questions. Google Assistant interacts with a multitude of smart home devices and applications.
Finally, Siri, perhaps the best-known virtual assistant, is an Apple creation. This virtual assistant works on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, Apple TV, and HomePod, the company’s smart speaker. The default voice is female, but you can change it to male, and change the language to English, Spanish, Chinese, French, and some others. You can also teach him how to pronounce names correctly. When you dictate, you can pronounce the score and press to edit if Siri makes a mistake in the message. For commands, you can use natural language.