Nuance Wintermute hands-on: a cross-platform, cloud-based personal assistant

Nuance Wintermute hands-on

It's becoming increasingly clear that the next wave of mobile computing is going to be voice driven. Mobile assistants like Siri and Google Now are garnering plenty of media attention and earning legions of fans. Nuance, the company behind Dragon -- often cited as the gold standard in voice recognition software -- wants to make sure it doesn't get left behind after pioneering the art of speaking to your computer. Dragon Mobile Assistant was the first step towards that goal, but it stuck primarily to searches and a few simple tasks. After leaving our stage here at CES, the company was nice enough to take us back to a suite where it demoed a project codenamed Wintermute. Besides throwing a bone to William Gibson fans, the project aims to make Nuance's personal assistant truly personal and platform agnostic by building a profile of individual users in the cloud.

While clearly very much in the early stages, what we saw was none the less impressive. The mobile app, was able to easily recognize queries such as "what is the score of the Celtics game" and obey commands like "play music by the Rolling Stones." Nuance even threw in a bit of snide, Siri-like personality -- the assistant quipped about the rep being too young to listen to the Stones. That response was obviously triggered by the fact that the app knew Sean Brown, a senior manager at the company, was born well after the band's hey day.

Where the cloud-based concept clearly shines however, is when you move between devices. Unlike Siri, which is tied to the iPhone, Wintermute knows you where ever you are. If you paused the Stones on your phone, you'd be able to pick right back up where you left off on your desktop or laptop, by simply telling Dragon Assistant to "play that song I was listening to." Things even carry over to your living room, thanks to Dragon TV. In the demo, Wintermute was told to "throw on the game." After parsing the language the system goes through a number of steps. It has to interpret the command and recognize that "throw on" means to put on the television and that "the game" refers to a sporting event. Then it looks at your online profile, sees that you recently performed a search for the Celtics score. Then it looks at the programing guide and, if the game is still going on, it tunes to that channel. And it does this at stunningly quick speeds.

Obviously, to build a truly personal assistant Nuance will need a vast database of information about you. Users can input certain information about themselves and it monitors searches and commands to build a history to mine. The company also says that it will be able to harvest data from content partners -- with the users permission, of course -- to extend that well of information and identify habits and personal tastes. Clearly, though, Google has the leg up in the race to build such a database about most people, so Nuance has a tough road ahead of it. But, if it can deliver as seamless an experience as we saw in the demo in the real world and convince consumers of the value of a platform-agnostic approach then Wintermute just might be what makes Nuance the name to beat in the virtual assistant field.

Michael Gorman contributed to this report.