T-Mobile's Genius Voice Command Is Getting Smarter

T-Mobile's Genius Voice Command Is Getting Smarter
A much-needed upgrade brings Genius closer to Siri (Courtesy T-Mobile)
Courtesy T-Mobile

Anyone who has ever owned a T-Mobile myTouch is familiar with the little button on the lower right-hand corner labeled with a stylized “G.” It’s the Genius button, which, once pushed, allows you to issue basic voice commands, from calling or texting a contact to searching the Web or Google Maps. If you’ve used it before, you know: Siri it’s not.

The service’s vocabulary and contextual understanding are pretty limited. For instance, if you ask Genius to “find a restaurant” it will pull up the nearest eatery on Google Maps. But if you ask it to “find nearby restaurants,” it searches Maps for a joint named “Nearby.” If you’re like me, you’ve probably fiddled with the button a few times and never touched it again, despite its relative convenience on the phone’s faceplate.

But T-Mobile has given Genius a much-needed overhaul, at least on the latest versions of the myTouch manufactured by Huawei Technologies. Nuance Communications, which powers the voice recognition technology on T-Mobile devices, is upgrading Genius’s capabilities and features, providing a deeper level of natural-language understanding and integrating the service with a much broader array of content sources beyond Maps and Google Search.

For instance, if I were to ask the new Genius for nearby restaurants it would not only understand my intent, it would also use Yelp to pull up nearby dining options and display their rankings and reviews. If I were to change that command to “make a reservation at nearby restaurants,” it would bring me to OpenTable’s website and display eateries in the vicinity that accept online bookings.

If this sounds familiar you’ve probably used Nuance’s consumer semantic-search app Dragon Go!, available for Android and iOS smartphones. In fact, if you look at the list of 200 content partners the Genius can access, they’re the same as the ones Dragon Go! uses. Nuance wouldn’t acknowledge specifically that T-Mobile is white-labeling the semantic-search app, but it’s pretty obvious that’s exactly what it’s doing—which is by no means a bad thing. I’m a big fan of Nuance’s intuitive little search app, and being able to access it in fewer steps is a bonus.

The official line, though, is that T-Mobile has basically upgraded its relationship with Nuance to a kind of platinum status. The old Genius tapped into Nuance’s basic speech-recognition APIs, but it had none of the rules-based language-parsing abilities of Nuance’s more sophisticated offerings. By adding greater contextual understanding and a host of content providers, T-Mobile may be able to turn a pretty lame voice command feature into something quite useful. So far, though, it’s only available on the myTouch and myTouch Q.

Both T-Mobile and Nuance will be represented at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference next month. Vlad Sejnoha, Nuance’s chief technology officer, will be speaking on a panel about the future smartphone interface on Sept. 20, while Brad Duea, T-Mobile’s senior vice president for marketing, will discuss the evolution of voice services on Sept. 21.

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