Monthly Archives: May 2012

Seven days with EVA

Those who came to this post expecting a tell-all of a romantic tryst in Paris will be sadly disappointed. EVA stands for “Extreme Virtual Assistant”, and is a program for Android Phones.

A smartphone is more than a phone, it is a convergence of technologies: GPS, Internet, Music, Video, Camera, E-mail, voice. Your smartphone knows where you are, which way you are facing, how fast you are moving and where you’ve been. One result of that convergence is the ability to give your phone instructions using voice commands. I have long predicted that it is only a matter of time before we are talking to our phones as if they were people, a la Star Trek.

My experience with speech recognition dates back to the last century (!), when I experimented with IBM’s ViaVoice software. It required a lot of “training” to get accurate results. My (British) accent was always a problem with the U.S. version of the software, and the British version used British spellings, which was a problem as I lived in the U.S. at the time. Corrections were too cumbersome and I eventually abandoned the effort.

Both then and now, the main problem with speech recognition is that it requires a lot of processing horsepower – more than a typical home PC. Smartphones get around this problem quite elegantly by uploading the voice data to servers in the cloud which can then pound on it and return the text results to the phone in a few seconds. The downside is that voice recognition will not function at all if your phone loses Internet connectivity.

I stumbled across EVA a week ago. Since them I have been plumbing her depths (oo-er) and finding out what she can do. Yes, EVA is female, and has an attractive female avatar (which I can – and have – turned off). There is also a male version called EVAN, for those who are that way inclined.

EVA essentially operates in one of two modes: “Wake-up mode” is a sort of Standby mode on which the programs waits in the background, listening for her name. You can get her to perform one command by prefixing it with her name (“EVA turn Bluetooth on”), or you can just call her by name to switch her into the second mode, in which she is in the foreground listening for commands. Oh, and to avoid accidentally waking her up, I changed her name to “Victoria”.

Here are a few of the many things you can do with EVA:

  • Get a weather forecast – for anywhere in the world (almost – “I’m sorry, I could not get the weather information for Antarctica”)
  • Create and manage lists
  • Create and manage memos
  • Make requests like “I’m hungry” (lists nearby restaurants) or “I’m thirsty” (lists nearby bars!)
  • Get answers to General Knowledge questions, such as: “What is the distance from the Earth to the Moon?”, or “What is the time in Montreal?”
  • Create reminders, such as: “Remind me to talk a walk at 2:45”. For those who need to be reminded about stuff, this feature alone is worth the price of admission.
  • Location based reminders: “When I get home, turn off Bluetooth”. Way cool. The GPS sensing is not as tight as I would like it (due to power consumption considerations). but it works well enough.
  • Run any app on the phone (“Open Calendar”, “Open Gmail”, “Open Music”, etc.)
  • Dictate text messages and have incoming messages read aloud to you.

Some would compare EVA with SIRI, the offering that Apple has on the iPhone 4S. However, Peter started working on EVA before SIRI was announced. There are also several marked differences:

  • EVA does not have SIRI’s quirky sense of humor. Ask SIRI “what are you wearing?” and she will reply “I’m not that kind of personal assistant”. Apparently the programmer did not consider this functionality important enough to implement, as EVA’s reply is one of several variations on a theme of “I don’t know”
  • To get SIRI, you have to buy a new iPhone. EVA costs $10 in the Android Market (recently renamed to the stupid and misleading “Google Play Store”), along with a 28-day free trial for those who want to try her out as an “Intern” (oo-er).

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this piece of software is that it is the brainchild of one man – Peter Muller. He has spent over a year building and improving this thing and, as a programmer, I must say that I am very impressed.

My only criticism of this product is not really a criticism at all. Because of EVA’s complexity and flexibility it is difficult to keep track of everything. At first glance the settings are bewilderingly complicated, though each and every setting serves a definite purpose. Many of the negative comments that I have seen are as a result of people who did not know how to do something, couldn’t find the information that they needed, and assumed that it could not be done.

Peter has created voluminous documentation and a raft of excellent YouTube Videos, but even they cannot cover everything. In my opinion, this product badly needs a Wiki – Peter can only do so much, and with a little community support the documentation could become much more intuitive.

Peter has obviously been working his arse off on this. I’ve never spent $10 on an Android app, but will almost certainly make an exception in this case.

Economical with the truth

I just logged out from a Hotmail account and was confronted by this:

What’s wrong with this picture? Firefox is currently at Version 12. And I use Noscript which prevents scripting (the source of most web-based malware) on unfamiliar websites. And sadly IE9 does not have anything similar.

Here’s an idea, Microsoft, why don’t you stop assuming that we’re all idiots and start being truthful? Is that too much to ask?

May the fourth be with you…