SoundHound is best known for its music recognition app, which listens to songs and identifies them, in the same vein as Shazam. But for the last nine years, the company has been working on a virtual assistant to rival Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. That app, called Hound, on Tuesday emerged from private beta on iOS and Android with data from 150 sources, including Yelp and Uber.
How it works: Open the app and either tap the microphone to ask Hound a question or just say, “OK Hound.” Then speak naturally. Hound serves up basic information like weather forecasts and what businesses are nearby, but can also tell you how far away the nearest Uber is and how much the price is surging by, calculate a mortgage for you, and tell you what hotel room rates at a pet-friendly resort with a gym will be months down the line. The answers come with lightning quickness, faster than any voice assistant I’ve ever encountered. You can ask follow-up questions to further narrow results:
“Show me coffee shops in SoHo, except Starbucks, that are open right now and serve food.” “Just the highest-rated ones.”
(That search turned up Doughnut Plant, which was so on point, though not exactly in SoHo—it’s on the Lower East Side.)
Hound has to be fast. The app is at a disadvantage because it doesn’t ship with devices by default, and can’t be used across iOS or Android without being opened first.
So why bother using Hound if you already have a virtual assistant baked in at the OS level? The AI that powers other virtual assistants translates voice to text and then text to meaning. But Hound skips the middle step faster than anyone else, translating voice to meaning quickly and with more complex queries than Siri or Google Now. That’s why it took so long to develop, SoundHound founder and CEO Keyvan Mohajer said during a demo at Macworld’s New York office.
During the demo, Hound answered queries without a hiccup for Mohajer, though my own searches weren’t quite as seamless when I tested a beta version of the iOS app. When I tried to narrow a search for restaurants in Manhattan’s Theatre District down to “more affordable” options, the app pointed me to Moore, a town in the middle of nowhere.
Siri might be more convenient to use, especially with Apple’s own services, like Mail, Calendar, and iMessage. But you also have to perform vocal gymnastics just to get Apple’s assistant to understand what you’re asking for, and the results are much slower than Hound’s. It wouldn’t surprise me if the app is acquired by one of the tech giants for its technology, which is both reliable and accurate for hands-free searches, in order to make their own personal assistants better.