Microsoft's Cortana Virtual Assistant Helps Windows 10 Get Personal

How does Cortana get to know users? Microsoft opens up about how its virtual assistant will deliver individualized recommendations.

Windows 10 Cortana

One of the most highly anticipated features in Microsoft's upcoming operating system is Cortana, the company's voice-enabled virtual assistant that debuted with Windows Phone 8.1. Now, she's headed to the desktop.

Cortana will be included as part of the stock Windows 10 experience when the OS is released later this year, Microsoft formally announced on Jan. 21. Like its current smartphone-based counterpart, the software will grow more familiar with users as time passes and tailor recommendations based on their preferences and day-to-day interactions.

"Cortana gets to know you and helps you get things done, all while letting you interact naturally and easily," wrote Marcus Ash, group program manager for Cortana and Search on Microsoft's Windows PC, Phone and Tablet Group, in a Feb. 10 blog post. "By learning more about you over time, Cortana becomes increasingly useful every day."

Cortana, named after an AI character that appears in the popular sci-fi video game series, Halo, is Microsoft's take on virtual assistant platforms like Apple Siri and Google Now. Currently, in early test builds, Cortana is available only in English (search works in all languages).

Users may notice subtle, but important differences interacting with Cortana, depending on device type.

"Cortana knows that when you're on your phone, your interaction is generally going to be brief; when you’re on your PC, your goals are going to be in line with steady periods of productivity," Ash said. "We've developed new visions and new scenarios meant to make life easier, and more fun, regardless of the device you're using."

The Bing-powered assistant features natural-language input, both spoken and typed, and can search the Web, OneDrive cloud storage accounts and content stored on a device to help users find the information they're looking for. Despite these far-reaching capabilities, Microsoft worked to ensure that Cortana respects boundaries by putting users in control over what she jots down in her virtual notebook.

"We built this idea into Cortana, in a place where your can access the Notebook and see everything that Cortana knows about you—because transparency and control here is also an invaluable asset," stated Ash. "It's Cortana showing you respect for what you want, and not showing up with materials—or in places—where you don't want Cortana to appear," he added.

"Cortana never adds anything to the Notebook without your explicit consent," assured Ash.

Microsoft is also striving to imbue Cortana with personality using a combination of voice, text and an animated icon, he added. Trained voice actresses—Cortana appears as female in all her incarnations—have supplied the company "with thousands of responses to questions that will have variability to make Cortana feel like it has an actual personality and isn't just programmed with robotic responses." For the icon animations, his team "worked with the creative team at 343 (the studio that develops Halo!) and landed on something we think makes Cortana feel more alive than if we just used a voice," Ash said.

"Quite simply, the more you use Cortana, the better Cortana will know you and help you," he concluded.

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez

Pedro Hernandez is a contributor to eWEEK and the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals. Previously, he served as a managing editor for the network of...