Testing Bixby, Samsung's Ambitious Plan to Make You Talk Like Iron Man

By Geoffrey A. FowlerFeaturesDow Jones Newswires

A new talking sidekick arrived Wednesday on millions of Samsung Galaxy S8 phones. To understand what makes chatting with Bixby different from Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, Samsung would like us to picture Iron Man.

Yes, the superhero. Injong Rhee, Samsung's head of mobile software R&D, told me the electronics giant's late-to-the-game voice assistant was inspired by Tony Stark. In the movies, he just barks commands and his systems leap into action. Billionaire inventors don't have to tap through menus to fire their unibeam chest projectors.

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With Bixby, nor will you, when taking a selfie, changing the TV channel or, eventually, setting the dishwasher to eco-mode. Samsung wants to make all kinds of devices conversational. Siri can tell you what movie won Best Picture in 1991, but won't turn on your iPhone's flashlight.

What Bixby lacks -- at least for now -- is Iron Man's execution.

In Bixby's first incarnation, arriving in the U.S. as a software update after a three-month delay, Samsung struggles under the weight of its ambition. Want to take a selfie with the "cozy" filter and text it to your buddy without touching a screen? Sure, Bixby can do that. But Bixby can't control all my most important apps, can't reliably comprehend me and can't find some answers readily available from rival AI assistants.

Verdict: Bixby over-promises and under-delivers. Lucky for Samsung, so do most of its rivals. And Bixby still manages to bring an important new dimension to the crowded field of talking tech.

What Bixby Does Well

You summon Bixby like other voice assistants, by calling a wake phrase: "Hi Bixby." It -- well, he or she, depending on which gender you choose -- also pops up when you press a dedicated button on the left side of the S8. The button is fast and pretty handy.

At its best, Bixby is less of a secretary and more what AI futurists call a "conversational interface." It's one antidote to the reality our gadgets are getting more complicated, with useful features hidden by buttons, menus and gestures. Do you know where to find your mobile data usage? Me either. But with Bixby, I say, "check my mobile data usage" and there it is.

Using (mostly) ordinary English, Bixby can operate every last one of the S8's gazillion settings, as well as all the functions in 12 built-in apps such as the Gallery, Messages and internet Browser. Another 21 apps including Email, Gmail, Maps, Yelp and Uber are listed as experimental.

Bixby is much more helpful than Siri on function-based commands. It can "take a selfie," giving you a countdown before it shoots. Google's Assistant, built into the Pixel and other Android phones, is a bit more capable than Siri, but still lacks Bixby's ability to tie together actions. Only Bixby can follow, "Open my last photo and post it to Facebook."

What's better, Bixby lives on top of other apps and knows what's going on in them. When you're looking at a photo, you can say "add stickers," and it knows what you mean. When dictation might be called for, Bixby replaces a keyboard.

Key to helping it improve, Bixby also asks for feedback. When Bixby can't quite decide what you're asking for, it'll present options. If it mishears you, you can correct individual words or map certain functions.

You and Bixby can even have your own secret code, called "quick commands." I taught mine to "activate deep throat" -- launch the voice-recorder app and take a memo.

Where Bixby Struggles

"Play Lady Gaga," you said? Sadly, Bixby heard "play lady kaka"...and then replied, "Here's the time." Yes, that really happened, one of the many times Bixby just couldn't get me. "Caller" became "collar"; then there's "super California lipstick expealidocious."

Bixby's voice could also use lessons in elocution: It pronounced 2:48 "t'forty eight" and read an error message as, "Looks like there's a bit of problem" [sic]. Samsung says updates it rolled out even in the last day improve these problems -- but clearly it doesn't have Google, Apple or Amazon's years of voice experience.

Bixby's bigger challenge is grokking what you really mean. When I opened a photo and said "brighten this," it turned up screen brightness instead of adjusting the photo.

Bixby doesn't have much knowledge about my life. It gets confused when I ask for directions to work, either opening calendar listings or giving me directions to the nearest OfficeMax.

Spotify is just one of the popular apps that Bixby can't control. (Apple, too, has been slow at rolling out third-party Siri integration.) Surely Samsung will get to the big apps, but I've got little hope for less-common ones, like my password manager.

The existential question for Bixby is whether it's providing functionality that matters. Did Apple just forget to give Siri flashlight powers, or did it realize nobody cares about flashlight voice control? We've been conditioned to operate phones with our fingers, so using voice can actually be a hindrance.

Google has focused its Assistant on answering complicated queries and anticipating things you might like. While Bixby can search the web for trivia, it can't translate or offer traffic advisories. When I asked Bixby, "Where should I go for dinner?" it pulled up a website called "Wheel of Dinner." Fortunately, Google's restaurant-savvy Assistant is still available on the S8.

Bixby's Next Steps

Samsung has a history of questionable software. It once touted a feature that let you operate a phone by hovering your hand over the screen. A previous assistant, called S-Voice, barely worked.

Despite the stammering start, Bixby isn't one of these. I've watched Bixby improve at an incredible pace even over the last few days of its beta trial.

And its focus should be more on the talking home than the talking phone. Samsung is one of the few tech companies that makes enough different kinds of electronic gadgets -- from speakers and TVs to fridges and vacuums -- to potentially make good on the vision of a smart home. (Perhaps Samsung should have first put Bixby in a dishwasher.) Apple, Google and Amazon have to rely on partners to put their voice technologies into devices other than TVs and speakers, and only Amazon has made serious headway. And Samsung now owns Viv and SmartThings, two well-regarded startups focused on connecting disparate devices and services.

It's going to take time for Bixby to get even as reliable as Siri, but Samsung has as much money as Iron Man to throw at the problem.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 19, 2017 12:42 ET (16:42 GMT)