How to get the most out of Siri for GPS purposes

Siri is the personal voice assistant software built into iPhone 4S. For all the excitement over her dry sense of humor, Siri is a very hands-on assistant who’s strongest at the everyday tasks you’re most likely to use regularly (especially after the novelty of asking her to “open the doors of the capsule bay» disappears).

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

And since Siri is voice-guided and responds to you with voice (in addition to text), I wanted to know if it can reduce distraction and help improve driving safety.

Finding an ATM is a good example. You can activate Siri simply by pressing and holding the iPhone 4S home button, or by raising it to your ear if you’re not on a call. One of Siri’s great strengths is its ability to understand requests expressed in many different ways. This is a refreshing change from typical car systems, which require you to learn and speak set phrases in order to do anything. To find an ATM with Siri, I got correct answers for phrases like “take me to the nearest ATM,” “how do I get to the nearest ATM,” or simply, “ATM.”

One thing you’ll quickly learn when using Siri is that you do n’t have to use full sentences to get things done. Typically, a one- or two-word request will initiate Siri’s precise search for the nearest resource, with examples including “coffee,” “restaurant,” “gas station,” “dry cleaner,” etc. This ability to analyze intent from a word or two also puts Siri head and shoulders above most other speech recognition systems, which require vocal analysis of key phrases to get things done.

Roadside assistance and emergency services

Siri is useful but limited when it comes to roadside assistance and emergency services. Say “emergency” to Siri and she’ll bring you a list of nearby hospital emergency rooms. I think this is where Apple’s Siri team should have stepped in and given a lot of thought to what “emergency” means, and pre-programmed a series of responses that would better encompass how to help someone in an emergency, including options to call 911, ambulances, cranes etc

If you simply say “911” to Siri, she will start talking about appointments on the calendar on September 11. If you tell Siri to “call 911”, she will dial 911 immediately. Don’t try this unless she really needs to call 911.

Siri as Travel Helper

Siri stands out as a travel assistant. It can be surprisingly easy to find specific things you commonly need while traveling, including restaurants (and specific types of restaurants), rest stops, and gas stations. After you’ve made your request, you can verbally select from the options presented and get kicked over to the Maps app for directions and feedback.

Siri for direct navigation

Siri’s greatest strength in direct navigation is its ability to understand full addresses without parsing them through verbal or touch menu options. If she’s used in-car navigation systems with voice recognition, she’s familiar with the exercise of laboriously speaking through (and often repeating aloud) the city, state, or address to get a set of destinations. Siri almost always nails the full address when you’re talking about everything in one sentence, and even if you get confused how the address order is presented. It is an impressive and very useful technology.

The big downside to 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 directions, but it’s nothing like the sophistication and usefulness of the best turn-by-turn speaking GPS apps on the market. I think it’s only a matter of time until Apple provides the API for Siri to access GPS navigation apps, but it’s not there yet.

Siri for public transport and bikes, hiking trails

Siri’s performance is generally very good for locating public transportation options. You have no problems with requests for the nearest bus and train stations and stops. However, he is still not able to cycle or walk. If you ask for “bike route to (destination city or address)”, it will be left blank. The same for pedestrian or pedestrian requests. However, once you access the Maps application with a simple request for directions, you can select public or pedestrian transportation options.

Location specific reminders

Siri connects with the iOS5 Reminders app to provide location-specific reminders. You can place geo-fences around your work, home, grocery store, and other places, and ask Siri to present you with an item to do when you enter or leave a geo-fenced area.

GPS and location utility

Some of the things that I think Siri is capable of, but haven’t been enabled yet, are more specific technical location and GPS features. For example, ask Siri “What are my coordinates (or latitude and longitude)”, and it will go blank. Same for simple requests, like “which way is north?” or “what’s my elevation?” That data is easily at your fingertips, but it’s not yet programmed.

One of the amazing things about Siri is that this is just the beginning. The shortcomings I am addressing here will likely improve in future free software updates. Its outstanding voice recognition and the ability to link voice commands to specific applications and actions provide a strong foundation for location and travel services on iPhone 4S and other Apple devices in the future.