In front of 5,000 developers earlier today, Microsoft's Joe Belfiore announced Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 8.1. But the main gist of Belfiore's talk is Cortana, Microsoft's answer to Apple's Siri and Google's Google Now.
If the name sounds familiar to you, that's because it is inspired by a fictional character in Microsoft's Studios' Halo video game series. Cortana, in Halo, is an artificially intelligent character and a personal digital assistant to John-117 a.k.a Master Chief.
"Of everything we're announcing today, I'm most excited to introduce you to the world's first truly personal digital assistant. We were inspired by the popular character from Halo who served as a brilliant AI and a deeply personal digital assistant to Master Chief. So we called her Cortana," Belfiore proudly said.
Belfiore also revealed that Cortana is voiced by Jen Taylor, the same voice actress of Cartana in Halo. Apparently Microsoft synthesized Jen's voice for the beta version of Cortana. The company plans to add more voices in the future.
Cortana is powered by Bing and it uses a notebook to store a user's personal information.
"When you interact with Cortana for the very first time, she will start learning things about you, like your name, how to pronounce it, and ask for some personal interests," Belfiore explained.
Microsoft clearly did its homework. The team behind Cortana talked to real-life personal assistants and observed their habits. One common thing that stood out was how the assistants used notebooks to remember their bosses interests and preferences.
"We thought - what a great idea! So all the stuff Cortana curates for you is stored in Cortana’s Notebook," Belfiore said.
You can activate Cortana in two ways. First is by pressing the search button on your phone. The second is through a Live Tile shortcut on the Start screen.
As you can see in the image above, the Cortana Notebook includes an inner circle section. Cortana can detect the contacts that are closest to you and these people in your "inner circle" can bother you in your quiet house. You can even setup your quiet hours to stop receiving calls and texts.
"Cortana is the only digital assistant that lets you setup people reminders. You can have Cortana remind you that your buddy owes you $20 the next time you talk to him. And all of these interests and preferences are under your control via Cortana’s notebook," Belfiore added.
Belfiore did a few demos on stage, and, unsurprisingly, Cortana made a few mistakes. Belfiore was quick to point out that Cortana is still in beta. Microsoft will launch the beta version later this month in the U.S. It will launch in the U.K. and China in the second quarter of this year. The rest of the world can enjoy Cortana next year.