Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Talking to Bixby

I read today on the online website TechRadar that Samsung's phone assistant Bixby now has a voice. You can talk to her.

I say 'her' because there are two Bixby voices. By default, I got the female one called Stephanie. She has quite a nice voice, and I'm going to stick with her. But there's also a male voice called John. He's got a pleasant voice too; but I don't want a man on my phone, telling me things. You can toggle between them.

Mind you, I don't understand why both say they are Bixby. Unless they are like the new Dr Who, and can morph between sexes depending on which reincarnation it is. Whichever voice you choose, you still have to say 'Hello, Bixby' to get their attention, unless you press the dedicated side button on the phone, when no such words are necessary to get going. I'd be perfectly happy to say 'Hello, Stephanie' instead, but it isn't an option. 

UK users are at present obliged to use American English, and this is why Stephanie and John sound the way they do. Presumably they will sound a lot plummier when UK English becomes available. Perhaps they will be called Annabel and Gerald. I can't wait.

When I first had my Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone back in April, Bixby was a read-only service of limited value, and I didn't bother with it. Now, with voice capabilities, it's suddenly a lot more useful. You can start to control your phone with voice commands. I've been used to taking the odd photo by saying 'Shoot!' Now I can say to Bixby (I mean Stephanie) 'Show me pictures of boats' - and she will display 124 pictures from the total collection of 18,000-odd installed on my phone - all kinds of floating things that I've shot over the years, including a museum model of a tea clipper. 

And that's impressive, because most of the captions for these shots don't include the word 'boat'. Bixby must be trained to recognise boat-shaped objects, or the names of ships. She picked up some oddly-shaped boats, like vehicle ferries, and narrow canal boats. And not just complete boats: some of those 124 shots showed just bits of deck, or only a wheelhouse. There were a few mistakes, such as showing me a buoy, a river bridge, and a staircase in a country house; but on the whole I got a big selection of nautical pictures, nearly all with a boaty connection. The odds are that if I had been trying to find a particular shot of a boat, I would have found it using Bixby.

I tested Bixby on shots of Mum, by saying to Stephanie 'Show me pictures of Mum'. This yielded 375 shots. Then I went into my photo-viewing app, QuickPic, typed 'Mum' in the Search box, and got only 367 pictures. Hmm.

But it was no good asking Bixby to look up shots of 'Glasgow'. Stephanie kept thinking I was saying 'Glass go' and we got nowhere. However, she learns fast, and I expect to try again soon and be shown the fifty or more pictures taken by me in that city. 

Using just the voice, you can get Bixby to open an app, and do things with that app. For instance, it's now possible to set up a hair appointment in the Samsung Calendar, just by saying a few words. 

It does have to be a built-in Samsung app for full functionality, but Bixby will open some third-party apps like Gmail and Dropbox too. It all sounds very handy, but I found to my annoyance that where music is concerned Bixby wants to work only with Samsung's newer Play Music app, and not the older Music app. The newer app sells you music, the older one is strictly a traditional music player - albeit a polished affair with an excellent graphic equaliser. It would have been cool to say to Bixby, 'Play me I Will Survive, by Arrival' but all she does is request that I install the unwanted Play Music app first. Boo.

Now that Bixby is set up, I expect to gradually find more and more uses for her, but at the moment there isn't really a great advantage to be had by operating one's phone with voice commands. If you have organised your apps logically, and configured them to function efficiently, then it's a doddle to get things done with finger-power alone - and in blessed silence. 

Bixby is wonderful for one thing, though - taking screenshots. I quite often take shots of what's showing on the screen. Hitherto that involved the simultaneous pressing of two buttons, with no more than a 50% success rate, as the timing had to be just so, and of course it had to be the right two buttons. Now I just press the Bixby side-button and say 'Screenshot.' to which Stephanie will say 'Got it. I captured the screen. We can see it in the Gallery.' Foolproof.    

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