Cortana's voice is synthesized in part from an AI character in Halo

Can Microsoft's digital assistant ever match the savvy of the Halo character by the same name?

Cortana, Microsoft's new digital assistant for Windows Phone 8.1, gets her name from a fictional character in the popular Halo video game series.

In the game, Cortano is an artificially intelligent character who first appeared in Halo: Combat Evolved and then in the sequels Halo 2, Halo 3 and Halo 4.

The game character was voiced by Jen Taylor who, it turns out, has again provided her voice. Microsoft synthesized Taylor's voice with "more than one source" for the Cortana beta, a Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed via email.

"Over time we plan to employ Jen Taylor's voice through a greater portion of the experience," the spokeswoman said.

Cortana, still in beta form, was introduced Wednesday at the opening of Build 2014 onstage by a gushing and proud Joe Belfiore, executive vice president of Microsoft's operating systems group. He looked and sounded like a new father -- or an uncle, at least.

His enthusiasm carried over to a blog he penned: "Of everything we're announcing today, I'm most excited to introduce you to the world's first truly personal digital assistant (his emphasis) now on Windows Phone. We were inspired by the popular character from Halo who served as a brilliant AI and a deeply personal digital assistant to Master we called her Cortana."

The name Cortana is a Latin form of the Anglo-French "curtein" from Latin "curtus" and refers to a ceremonial sword.

Whatever one thinks of the name, the synthesized voice in the beta seemed pleasing enough to several who first heard it Wednesday. Apple's Siri, introduced in 2011, has gone through a couple of iterations over time and Apple allows customers to pick either a male or female voice.

Asked whether he liked the Cortana beta voice, IDC analyst Ramon Llamas was equivocal.

"I didn't not like her voice," Llamas said. "At the most basic level, Microsoft has to offer a voice that's comfortable and easily understood by all potential users." Cortana will launch soon in the U.S. first as a beta, and then in finished form in the U.S., the U.K. and China in the second half of 2014. Other countries will follow into 2015.

"Can Microsoft go with something radical? A female voice is better than a male voice, I assume," Llamas said.

Cortana on start screen
Windows Phone 8.1 will include a voice-activated digital assistant called Cortana.

What mattered to Llamas -- and obviously what matters to Microsoft -- is not the actual tone and dialect of the voice, but how well Cortana can work as a digital assistant who knows a user's contacts and friends, at least from what's been revealed by the user.

Belfiore attempted to show Cortana can be better than Google Now or Siri in terms of artificial intelligence during several on-stage demos at Build. By tracking his calendar, for example, Cortana could say his attempt to add a visit to the dentist would be at the same time he was due to pick up somebody at the airport.

Cortana is the "first truly personal digital assistant who learns about me and the people that matter to me most," Belfiore said. He encountered a couple of problems using Cortana, but explained them away as related to live demos with beta software.

Llamas said he's hoping to see how well Cortana can offer a fuller explanation to a question, rather than offering a simple response. At Build, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella conversed briefly with Cortana with what seemed like some staged responses from Cortana.

But Llamas said it would be helpful to have a digital assistant who can add on a phrase such as, "You're welcome, and have a nice day."

Even if such a flourish isn't exactly how Cortana will work in the real world, Llamas said Microsoft has begun to show what's possible.

"With a personal digital assitant, there's always a danger of it becoming novelty-ware, but Cortana is designed to understand your habits and programs and that's pretty huge to me," Llamas added. "Voice is one of the best user interfaces out there, and I'll be interested to see how quickly Cortana will understand both context and language."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is

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Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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