[NOTE: The following post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Halo 4]
Master Chief is one of Microsoft’s most iconic characters – despite being, in the original Halo, little more than an empty vessel for players to fill as they battled the Covenant (and the Flood). At the time, the character had a backstory but no voice or distinguishing characters – only to be fleshed out in later installments (and a variety of extended universe stories in other mediums). Yet, even though Chief is the helmeted “face” of the Halo game series, his AI partner in saving the universe, Cortana, might actually be the most loved.
Moments between the two were often heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, with Halo 4 exploring their unique friendship more than ever before. By the time the dust had settled, and the heroes had gone face to face with the ruthless Didact, Cortana’s fate was sealed in a moment of sacrifice – leaving many fans to wonder if they’d ever get to see (or hear) the beloved character again. Now, after months of speculation, Microsoft has announced that Cortana, via voice actor Jen Taylor, will be incorporated into the Windows Phone software – to compete with Apple’s Siri AI assistant.
After rumors suggested that Cortana, or at the very least Taylor’s voice work, could be the foundation for the company’s AI assistant, the official announcement came in a preview of Windows Phone 8.1 – which, in addition to introducing Cortana, detailed other upcoming features.
Check out the video of Cortana in action below [Cortana talk begins at 1:51]:
In the video and the post, Microsoft highlights a number of other features that Windows Phone 8 users can expect but, for gamers, the choice to include Cortana is certainly interesting – if for no other reason than nostalgic appeal. Still, the Siri competitor does include some intriguing ideas, all designed around the AI providing personalized information, individual to each user’s routine and interests:
“To develop Cortana, we talked to a number of real personal assistants. One technique these assistants spoke about was keeping track of the interests and preferences of their bosses in a notebook. We thought… what a great idea! So all the stuff Cortana curates for you is stored in Cortana’s Notebook. This information enables Cortana to be proactive and helpful throughout the day.”
According to Microsoft, they’re not simply borrowing Jen Taylor’s voice for a Siri-like program, much like her video game counterpart, Cortana is designed with “personality” – though, don’t expect her to ruminate on her time fighting the Covenant with Master Chief:
“Cortana isn’t just a dry computer returning search results. Just as she has in the game Halo, Windows Phone’s Cortana has a bit of personality. But you’ll have to talk to her yourself to see what I mean by that.”
The choice to take a fan-favorite Microsoft franchise character and inject her into smartphone personal assistant software is an interesting one. On the one hand, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to complain about hearing Jen Taylor’s voice whenever they interact with their phone; yet, there’s a stark contrast between the vibrant “life” depicted in Halo‘s Cortana and the Windows Phone 8 assistant program.
At surface level, it’s a fun nod to the company’s history but how many users are going to both a) get the reference and b) enjoy much satisfaction out of interacting with a Cortana that doesn’t talk about battling aliens? After years of developing such an affecting personality and narrative for the AI character, it’s likely that some users might actually find it off-putting to hear Cortana remind them about an upcoming dermatology appointment or, even worse, reply to the question, “Who is your father?” with an eye-rolling answer of, “Technically speaking, that’d be Bill Gates. No big deal.”
No doubt, including Cortana is a cute idea but how many phones will Microsoft sell simply because of the Cortana reference and voice? Will it be enough to off-set the amount of gamers who might feel like Microsoft is selling the character out, simply for cheap publicity? After leaving such a powerful mark on the Halo franchise, is this the best we can do to continue Cortana’s legacy?
Could Microsoft be the missing element that makes voiced AI assistants more than just a gimmick?
Windows Phone 8.1 (featuring Cortana) will be available in April or May.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick.