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Going out with Cortana!

Windows Phone 8.1 has been a giant move forward for the operating system. There’s lots of new stuff, but the star of the show – if you’re in the US or the UK, at any rate – is almost undoubtedly Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated, talking digital assistant.


But how does she make use of location, guide you to where you want to go and uncover new places to visit? You’re about to find out.

“Where can I get a pizza nearby?”

In my book, this is the shining pinnacle of technological achievement in the twenty-first century and perhaps the most important thing a modern smartphone can do for you. Cortana brings up a list of local pizza restaurants - by magic.


She’s not too fussy about the exact wording, either – pretty much any combination containing a selection of where/pizza/nearby/local will work.

Of course, behind the scenes, she’s also making use of the HERE services for Windows Phone to get the results. Clever lady!

[As an aside, I tried just grunting ‘Pizza!’ at Cortana and, to my delight, it works. You get a selection of recipes for pizza first (boo!) but then the same list of local restaurants and take-outs.]

“Show me the ones with three or more stars”

I’m a classy eater, me. I don’t want to be eating poorly rated pizza. Anyway, this is a good example of the way Cortana is able to interrogate and narrow down search results to get closer to what you want, and the way she uses the current context to interpret your commands – you don’t need to say ‘pizza’ again.


Other commands that work at this point include ‘Which are open now?’, ‘Which ones deliver?’, ‘Phone the first’ and ‘Show me which ones take reservations’.

I’m looking for a take-out, though.

“Show me traffic to the first one”

OK. I’m also a bit lazy. Should I take the car or walk? Well, Cortana tells me that the traffic is crawling and that the quarter-mile journey will take seven minutes by car.

She also pulls up a mini-map of the route, so that I can see that for myself. All of this is powered by HERE services, of course. If you’re more interested in just finding the place, you could have said ‘Show me a map of the first one’.


More to the point, though, I should probably walk.

“Give me directions to the first one”

Let’s pretend I haven’t been to this place a 1000 times: I’m a stranger in town and actually need directions. This command fires up HERE Drive+ (now free with Windows Phone 8.1). Cleverly, it’s already had a conversation with Cortana and knows exactly where I’m going, with the route all ready for me to hit ‘start’.


You actually get to choose your voice navigation app in the settings of the new Maps app. This is set to HERE Drive+ by default.

“Get me directions home”

Once again, let’s pretend I haven’t been to Pizza Hut before. The interesting thing about this command is the ‘home’ bit. Cortana has a ‘places’ section in her ‘notebook’ that lets you define the locations that you use most frequently. ‘Home’ and ‘Work’ are on the default list, but you can add whatever you want e.g. ‘Mum’s house’, ‘the pub’, ‘our hotel’ etc. Working with this, you can start to use some really clever voice commands like ‘Get me a public transport route to Bob’s house’.


“Art exhibitions in London”

I’m now well-fed and I’m ready for some culture. Most general questions you ask of Cortana will result in a Bing search results page. This list of events shown below, though, isn’t just a set of links to the websites of the organisations involved. Rather, they’re directory pages that you can use to once again fire up HERE Drive+.


“Start HERE apps and multimedia”

It’s worth pointing out that Cortana is also a launcher. You can ask her to ‘Open/Start HERE Maps/Drive/Transit – or other, lesser, apps’ and get exactly the results you’d anticipate.

A last cool feature is media controls. Cortana recognises commands like ‘play music’, ‘next track’, ‘stop music’ and ‘play album-name’. And after carrying out your command, she flips you right back to the app you were last using, so you can control your music without losing your directions in HERE Drive+.

Are you checking out Cortana on Windows Phone? What other location-related commands have you found?

[This overview was conducted using the latest developer preview of Windows Phone 8.1, which allowed UK users like myself their first glimpse of Cortana. Functionality and features might, of course, change over the final stages of development.]

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