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How to tell if Cortana's feeling satisfied or embarrassed

Barry Collins
11 Feb 2015
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Microsoft reveals the subtle "body language" it has built into the Cortana voice assistant

Microsoft has revealed more details about how Cortana will be implemented in Windows 10, including how the virtual assistant uses subtle variations in its circular avatar to express different emotions. Cortana is one of the key new additions to Windows 10, even if a UK English version is yet to appear in the current Technical Preview build. 

In a video posted on YouTube, Microsoft explains the philosophy behind the features and design of the voice assistant, including how Cortana changes shape to provide the computerised equivalent of body language. "If you just have a voice that doesn't really create the kind of emotional connection we were going for," said Marcus Ash, group program manager at Microsoft. "There's nothing like having a conversation with somebody, seeing their facial expressions, seeing how they respond to you. So, to us, we had to couple the name and the voice with an object.

Everything you need to know about Windows 10

"We settled pretty quick on the idea of a simple geometric shape. We had a bunch of character designers, and the first idea they had was you can do a lot of amazing work with simple shapes. You can make those shapes bounce, you can make them expand, you can make them bow a little bit if they're embarrassed about something."

The video highlights a range of different emotions created for Cortana, including calm, optimistic, abashed and alert, all signified using just animated circles. "When we saw it, we fell in love immediately," said Ash. "This is what sets us apart from others in this space that are trying to create digital assistants, because we don't think they've nailed the personal human connection."

Tailored for the PC

Ash also reveals how Microsoft has thought about different use cases for Cortana on the phone and its new slot on the PC's taskbar. Ash said the PC implementation will be more geared towards performing tasks, allowing you to, say, quickly dictate an email to your partner without having to leave the spreadsheet you're working on.

 "The idea that the assistant's there with a little notepad, taking notes for you and helping to offload things so you can really stay in the zone when it comes to productivity is another important thing that we're thinking really hard about."

Microsoft also envisages Cortana being left running in the background on home PCs, allowing family members to walk up, ask Cortana to play some music, and have their favourite albums played back through the speaker system.

Leaked reports suggest Microsoft is hoping to have Windows 10 completed by June, ready for launch for the back-to-school season at the start of the autumn.

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