iPhone’s new personal assistant doesn’t much care for the Southern accent
by Brett Buckner
brettbuckner@ymail.com
Mar 25, 2012 | 7411 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tyler Thigpen knew he looked more like a crazy person than a father of three on vacation, but modern technology can be just that maddening.

He was stuck in traffic in Orlando – sunburned, exhausted and very near the end of his rope – and all he wanted to do was find a pharmacy to buy some medicine for his 3-year-old daughter who’d managed to come all the way to Florida to get pink eye.

But traffic was at a standstill. So Thigpen pulled out his handy iPhone 4S, held down its “home” button and was quickly greeted by Siri, the device’s female-voiced personal assistant that – at least according to the commercials – can help users with everything from finding a good seafood restaurant and dictating text messages to predicting the weather and answering questions like, “Where’s the best place to hide a body.” But on this unusually warm afternoon in March, all Tyler Thigpen wanted to do was let his wife know where he was and what was taking him so long.

“What can I help you with?” Siri said.

“Text Sandra,” Thigpen responded.

But Siri wasn’t feeling especially helpful.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” she said.

“Text Sandra,” Thigpen said.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” Siri answered.

“Text Sandra,” Thigpen said.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite get that,” Siri answered.

Thigpen, who lives in Jacksonville, started getting louder the longer the exchange went on, clutching his phone until his knuckles were white. A couple of minutes and several failed attempts later, he was practically screaming, “TEXT SANDRA!”

“OK … I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

It wasn’t until the honk of other cars pulled him out of his furry that Thigpen realized the traffic had broken and he could get to the store. Finally in the parking lot, he conceded defeat and just called his wife – bypassing Siri altogether.

“I almost lost my mind,” he said, laughing. “I thought getting kids to pay attention was frustrating, but it’s nothing compared to talking to Siri, especially when you really need it to work … that’s the best way to guarantee it won’t.”

Launched in October, the voice-activated app was the latest revelation to come along with Apple’s iPhone 4S, but reviews have been mixed – to say the least – as more and more people complain that Siri doesn’t always comprehend certain requests.

In New York, Frank M. Fazio is suing Apple for false advertising, alleging the company’s commercials (for example, the one where a long-haired, teenage wanna-be musician commands Siri to “call me Rock God,” which she does) convey a “misleading and deceptive message” about Siri’s capabilities.

According to the lawsuit filed in March, Fazio claims Siri is far less responsive in real life as compared with its commercials. When he asked for directions to a certain place, or to locate a store, “Siri either did not understand what Plaintiff was asking, or, after a very long wait time, responded with the wrong answer.”

The lawsuit, which asks for unspecified damages, says Siri is “at best, a work-in-progress.”

Though Siri comes with support for five languages, including three dialects of English (U.S., United Kingdom and Australia) along with French and German, it’s repeatedly had difficulty recognizing certain regional accents and dialects.

This means Southerners with a love for high-tech wizardry and a molasses-like drawl might be in for more than a few headaches if they choose to hook up with Siri.

Ricky Breazeale estimates that his Siri works “at best” some 10 percent of the time.

“Dude, me and Siri have been having problems since the day I got her,” he said. “I probably should have made her sign a pre-nup.”

Not a bad idea considering the new iPhones cost more than $200. Though Breazeale doesn’t necessarily consider himself to be a hardcore tech geek, he is “pretty savvy,” and was excited about the potential promise of the Siri.

“It’s pretty advanced … when it works,” he said. “And if you’ve got any semblance of an accent, you’ll spend a lot of time banging your head against the steering wheel.”

A thick Southern accent is one thing, a difficult-to-pronounce last name is something different – add the two together and it’s a recipe for frustration. For example, sending a simple text message via Siri when your last name is Breazeale – even though it’s pronounced “Brazil” – can be tricky.

“I’ve learned to be real precise with Siri,” he said. “So if I’m gonna text my wife Jessica, I have to be sure to say ‘Jessica Br-e-e-zel’ just so it’ll recognize who I’m talking about.”

Given that the technology is rather new, Apple seemed prepared for Siri’s hiccups. Siri is currently in “beta” form and will continue to be improved over time. According to the Apple Web site, “As more people use Siri and it’s exposed to more variations of a language, its overall recognition of dialects and accents will continue to improve, and Siri will work even better."

Vickie Tolbert just needed a Smartphone and, as a long-time Apple user, the iPhone made for an obvious option. But her conversations with Siri have been positively infuriating.

“I don’t think you can print most of what I’ve said about Siri,” said Tolbert, who lives in Pell City, “but ‘heartless’ is one thing, along with other sordid adjectives.”

And Siri can also be rather snarky. Tolbert remembers repeatedly asking for a phone number in her contacts list only to have Siri say, “I don’t know who you are.”

Tolbert blames both her Southern accent and the software for her miscommunications with Siri, but there is one nugget of evidence that might prove the former to be the greater culprit.

“My husband’s from Illinois and he doesn’t have any trouble at all,” she says. “I guess it could be a Southern thing.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com
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