12 Weeks of Christmas: 7 of the Best Voice Assistant Commands

12 Weeks of Christmas: 7 of the Best Voice Assistant Commands

Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Assistant are here to help, and that has led to a home invasion not seen since the Body Snatchers first lifted B-rate movies in 1956. Voice control is here to stay, so how can photographers make use of it? Here are seven of the best queries.

Voice control is the thing of movies and has become ingrained in our psyches by the likes of James T. Kirk and Jean Luc Picard, where we simply have to ask the computer for a cup of hot Earl Grey tea. Of course, in those halcyon days of voice control, if you got a potted plant back, you knew you had a virus, whereas today, we simply become part of a high-bandwidth streaming botnet employed for the nefarious gains of a denial of service attack. Damn, that could well be the next script for a Romulan attack against the Federation.

Yet voice control has moved from a difficult-to-use method of dictation (remember Dragon Naturally Speaking, which was released in 1997?) and laboriously controlling your PC to full online automation. The transformation has been remarkable, and at a breakneck pace. Amazon (with Alexa) and Google (with the unimaginatively named Assistant) are the market leaders in terms of their capabilities and market penetration, while Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana remain competitive.

Notwithstanding the many privacy issues that have been raised such as emailing recordings, spying by rogue apps, and more, voice control looks set to affect ever greater parts of our lives. So, how can voice assistants help us as photographers? Well, there are the obvious automation tasks that we use in our everyday lives, such as making calls, adding appointments, and opening websites, but what specific photographic tasks can they assist us with? 

While researching this article, I discounted Siri, because it's only available for Apple products, which for smartphones, means about 15% of the (new) market. Alexa, Assistant, and Cortana can downloaded and installed across different devices. Alexa's strength comes from its wide integration with third-party products via its API, which makes it particularly effective at home automation; however, developers can integrate any type of plugin (or "skill"). These need to be activated before they can be used. Assistant (and Cortana) take the opposite approach, with all plugins (or "services") active by default; however, working out what is available is a little more challenging.

As a general point, I found very little in the way of specific photography plugins available, with most queries dropping back to generic voice control and so relying on the capabilities of the specific voice service. In this regard, Google was significantly better than Alexa (and Cortana) at understanding what I was saying and then turning that into a meaningful action. More often than not, this meant running searches for fact-based queries on Wikipedia before looking more widely. Perhaps then, it's not surprising that Assistant was better at search.

Without more ado, here are seven things you might want to ask your virtual voice assistant!

1. What Is the Price of a Sony a7R IV Camera?

Amazon is a shopping site, so it goes without saying that if you want to find the price of any camera gear, then Alexa is pretty good at returning a search from its own listings. If you want to search more widely, then Assistant will drop you to a search page where you can start comparing prices. Cortana failed miserably and wasn't able to work out what I was asking for! You can of course direct your voice assistant to a specific website, but that will depend upon how easy it is articulate the URL (bandh.com isn't easy to understand!).

2. What Is the Hyperfocal Distance of the Nikon D850 With a 24mm Lens?

None of the voice assistants are smart enough to undertake complex calculations, and so, by default, they drop to Wikipedia, which at least gives you access to technical-level information, in this case, the hyperfocal distance. What's useful about this is that it can hone in pretty quickly before providing a URL for you to review in a web browser. What would be better is for an existing photography calculator to provide a service/skill that would allow you to access it directly. PhotoPills is an obvious candidate, but it would be good to see any photography computation skill/service. For the time being, this is one question not to ask your voice assistant.

3. Give Me a Biography of the Photographer Robert Capa.

From technical information, we move to biographical. All the voice assistants make heavy use of Wikipedia, and for this reason, historical information is much better catered to, both in terms of photographers and photos. What's great is the ability to automatically move the search into images, such as: "Show me the photo Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag." All three services managed to complete this successfully, which is great as long as you know the name of the photo. Extending this to the well-known, but not iconic, "Adult Females Attack Without Provocation" is less successful resulting in a general web search. This reiterates the need to have a query that is both understandable (to the voice assistant) and unique.

4. What Is the Most Expensive (Best) Photo in the World?

The previous question was specific; asking a voice assistant for something more open-ended inevitably leads to its own search service and so is only as good as the underlying search. Asking for the most expensive photo in the world correctly identified Rhein II by Andreas Gursky, although again, this reflects Wikipedia or the internet more widely. Making the question subjective (what is the best photo?) is often more interesting, but that really just reflects the internet and how the search terms return meaningful results.

5. What Time Is Sunset on december 25 2019 in Oxford?

For landscape photographers, sunrise and set are often key times of the day, and knowing when and where these will be optimum can be critical. In the Eight Best Webapps, I mentioned using the online version of The Photographers' Ephemeris (TPE). I would love for there to be a TPE skill/service, but sadly, this doesn't exist, which means making do with a generic alternative. Ask your voice assistant the above question, and it will give you an accurate response that matches up with the results from TPE. What it won't tell you is the direction of sunrise and sunset; however, if you are racing against the clock, it might be helpful. In a similar vein, you can also ask for moonrise and moonset, along with tide information.

6. Set a Countdown Timer for 90 Seconds.

Long-exposure photographers will appreciate this task: yes, Google's Assistant can set a countdown timer, which means no furtive checking of your watch or shivering as you keep checking your smartphone screen. No, your timer announces when it's completed. Genuinely useful. Oddly, Alexa on Android can't set a countdown timer, and Cortana just did nothing. 

For the final question, we can leverage the smartphone's GPS to locate where you are and then use that to help with the answer. "Nearby" is a keyword that takes your current location, and what better to ask than popular photo locations. This returns a general search, but parameterizes the query based upon location. Assistant worked very well, both locating where I was and finding articles on the internet listing photo-specific locations. Both Alexa and Cortana misinterpreted the question and returned professional photographers near my location.

Now that we are at the end of these seven tasks, it's worth pausing for a moment to appreciate really how far voice control has come, and that's notwithstanding the remarkable ability to accurately transcribe a number of different languages with a range of different accents in real-time. Once it's done that, it actually has to convert the words into actionable tasks. Taking sunset time as an example, this means realizing "sunset time" is the core task, then identifying both a date and a location. For the location, an actual place needs to be converted into a latitude and longitude ready for the calculation. It's worth noting that if you ask for sunset direction, it still gives you the time, which means that this is a generic task that only calculates time; however, it remains pretty impressive.

That said, it also highlights how far we still have to go. Google Assistant is significantly ahead of Cortana and Alexa when it comes to producing a resulting action; its interpretation of your words impressively good. However, there are no genuinely useful skills/services available that would make some key tasks (such as calculations) much easier — most searches drop back to a generic web search. Are there any other questions that photographers find useful? How do you use voice control in your daily life?

Lead image a composite courtesy of Xavier Romero-Frias via Wikipedia, and mkweb2 and OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons. 

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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1 Comment

I still don't see the point why I should talk to my devices. I just feels utterly stupid. The only instance where I see an advantage is if I don't have my hands free (e.g. in the car).

The most important point for me are the privacy issues.