Marcus Ash tells us how Cortana comes to life with Windows 10, shares three important aspects

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Group Program Manager Marucs Ash tells us what makes a Cortana morer personal than most assistants

Microsoft’s highly functional personal assistant Cortana is currently (thanks to a successful public technical preview) being prepped and primmed for her debut on PC and tablets later this year and Marcus Ash, the Group Program Manager for Cortana, is laying out what that means for future purchasers of Windows 10 devices.

Marcus begins his discussion with Cortana’s core emphasis, “Cortana gets to know you and helps you get things done, all while letting you interact naturally and easily. By learning more about you over time, Cortana becomes increasingly useful every day. She will learn your preferences, provide quick access to information, and make recommendations personalized for you. You’re always in control of what Cortana knows and manages on your behalf.” For those of us ‘in the know’, or who use Windows Phones daily, we have a better grasp of what that means.

Marcus gives us a little back story to help with our overall understanding of Cortana as a project that eventually became something much more. Cortana started back in April of 2012 as part of Microsoft’s early thinking of what the future of search could and should be on phones.

We saw an emerging set of trends around the personalization of your experience due to the sheer amount of things your phone knows about you – your location, the people you communicate with most, your favorite apps/services, etc. We thought this was a bigger idea than just mobile, and this capability should be available across all of our devices – from mouse and keyboard, to touch – and that it should utilize what we knew about patterns and anticipate and meet those needs. We didn’t want to build one digital assistant for everybody, we wanted to build one digital assistant for you. Cortana learns you, knows you, and respects you.

Marcus and his team saw that Cortana could be much more than simply being a personal assistant ‘feature’. Cortana could be the first contextual operating system that knows you enough to accurately predict your patterns and above all else, help you get things done. This notion of getting things done, has been a hallmark phrase of every Satya Nadella public engagement. I often thinks he mummers that in his sleep sometimes.

The concept of a quick thinking, situational assistant is nice, but how do you make it work? Marcus and his team narrowed their focus on three core aspects of a personal digital assistant. 1) Personal, 2) Looks out for you, 3) Has to be a delight to use.

3 components for personal assistant

Much like having a real life assistant, they should know you personally. Your likes and dislikes, habits and traits, otherwise you could end up getting Bagels every morning when you actually prefer croissants.

Cortana achieves this level of personal understanding through her set-up experience. She ask several questions to begin a understanding dialog. This personal understanding continues through noting likes and dislikes in her Notebook. The concept is like a journal of interest that you log and she keep track of. This journal concept dovetails into the second key component of personal assistant, looking out for you.

What good is telling your assistant you like running shoes a size bigger for comfort and they then bring you glow in the dark yo-yo’s? Cortana proactively acts on the users behalf by making intelligent use of extensions in information you grant her. You mark a day in the week for a meeting or a flight, and she will remember to alert you for both the meeting time and keep you abreast of weather and flight conditions.

Lastly, the assistant has to be a delight to use. Something Apple nailed with the introduction of Siri was her delightful banter she would engage in with the user. Beyond witty retort, the problem most voice assistants run into and ultimately fail at is natural language understanding. Voice assistants tend to become rigid script-responding robots that very few enjoy using beyond the parameters of the script. Microsoft sought to remedy the frustration people get when using voice assistants on any level. The minutes wasted over pronouncing words or yelling target words ad nauseam are usually deal breakers for most first time users of voice assistants.  

Helpful voice assistant Cortana

Cortana’s team went a step further and also focused on giving Cortana a personality that would help in day to day use. There were discussions about how witty, confident, or loyal she should be. They wrote scripts based on those descriptors and found the lovely Jen Taylor (the original voice actress for the Cortana assistant in the Halo Universe) to breathe life into Cortana once again. Other discussions were about her physical embodiment. Marcus and his team worked with 343 Studios (the studio that originally developed Halo and Cortana) to come up with a myriad of options from simple geometric shapes to full blown human-like avatars. In the end we got a very animated circle. It was probably safer to go with the circle than the half naked avatar that appears in the Halo games.

Simply put, Cortana is about convenience through functionality. “Imagine how convenient it is to tell Cortana on your phone to deliver a reminder that pops up, at just the right time, on your desktop. With Cortana’s reminders, you never have to miss anything important because you stepped away from a particular device. With Windows 10, Cortana’s natural language ability helps avoid misunderstandings and lets you interact easily by talking or typing. Because Cortana is powered by Bing, you can easily search and find content on your devices, your OneDrive, and the web,” Marcus explains.

“What else is coming? We’re looking forward to helping people achieve productivity in communal scenarios. For example, you may have several PCs at home, and you’re all sharing and storing music with each other. We want Cortana to help you easily find the music you want and play it from any of the devices, throughout your home, across PCs, phones, tablets and speakers, in a group setting. More to come on that very soon,” Marcus adds.

It looks like the best way to explain this new almost human-like voice coming from your laptop, is to get to know her yourself. Join Microsoft’s Technical Preview program and help shape how Cortana will be used by you, your mother, and potentially billions of others.