Keyvan Mohajer talks fast.
It’s a good trait to have for this particular demo. He’s showing Tech Insider the capabilities of Hound, a free voice assistant app that’s being released publicly for iPhone and Android on Tuesday.
“What is the population and capital for Japan and China and their areas in square miles and square kilometers and also tell me how many people live in India and what is the area code for Germany, France, and Italy,” Mohajer breathlessly says into his Android phone.
Hound spits back all the results instantly with perfect accuracy.
If you were to ask Siri or Google Now even half of that query, you’d get nothing in return. Mohajer is pulling out the stops to show off the power of Hound, a voice recognition assistant his company SoundHound has been quietly building for the last 9 years.
You may know SoundHound for its Shazam-like ability to recognise music that’s playing around you. But what Mohajer describes Hound as his “original vision” for the company and what he pitched to investors nearly a decade ago.
He sees voice control as the natural progression of how we interact with technology. First there were keyboards, and then touchscreens. In the next few years, he says “we will be talking to everything around us.” And he wants the technology powering Hound to be at the center of it all.
Hound uses what Mohajer calls “speech-to-text learning” to speed up how it processes questions. While most voice assistants first convert your voice to text and then try to decipher what you want to know, Hound’s proprietary engine does it all at once. It’s similar to how the human brain works. “If you can do them simultaneously, it’s faster,” he says.
The level of question complexity that Hound can understand also makes other voice assistants look elementary.
If you ask Siri for the time, it will tell you. You could even throw in another qualifier like “the time in Tokyo” and get an answer. The same can be said for weather conditions. But try asking Siri a question like, “When is the sun going to rise two days before Christmas in 2021 in Tokyo, Japan?” and you’ll get nothing.
Not so with Hound (the answer is 6:47 a.m.).
Mohajer asks Hound what the mortgage would be on a $1.2 million home. The app proceeds to ask about the down payment, mortgage period, and interest rate to find the right calculation. In an attempt to show off, Mohajer then strings all of the answers he just gave together into another rambling question that Hound nails with lightning-quick accuracy.
One of the main problems with voice assistants today is that they don’t understand context. If you ask Siri to find coffee shops near you and then say something like “What about ones with free WiFi?” you’ll be left with the same list you had already. Despite all their advances, Siri and Google Now are still not smart enough to maintain a conversation with you like a real human assistant.
Hound, on the other hand, excels in this department. Using the app’s partnership with Expedia, Mohajer tells it to, “
Show me hotels in San Francisco for tomorrow staying for two nights that cost between 200 and 400 per night and are pet friendly and have a gym and a pool.”
After the results are shown, he says “Sort by lowest price but nothing below 250 and don’t show anything that doesn’t have WiFi.” Hound obliges his double negative statement (don’t show anything that doesn’t have WiFi).
He asks Siri to show nearby restaurants except Chinese, it still shows Chinese. Hound doesn’t and instead shows nearby Japanese and Korean places in Manhattan. Siri knows how many calories are in an apple, but Hound says how many calories are in three eggs, two slices of bacon, and 200 grams of spinach. Siri can perform a web search to find out who the president of the United States is, but Hound instantly knows the age of father of the mother of the president of the United States (his name was Stanley Dunham and he died at 73).
Some other example questions Hound can answer:
- “What’s my flight status?” (If you don’t give the app the details, it will ask you for an airline, departing city, arriving city, and then tell you the status based on your phone’s location and time.)
- “What is the wind speed going to be on Friday at 3 p.m. near the Golden Gate Bridge?”
- “What is population of the capital of the country in which the Golden Gate Bridge is located?”
- “Does it usually rain on June 1 in Tokyo?” (The answer is no.)
- “How much does it cost to go from the San Francisco airport to the Ferry Building?” (Using its partnership with Uber, Hound can give an estimate based on available rides and let you book with your voice.)
- “Show me coffee shops within walking distance that are open after 9 p.m. on Mondays and have WiFi access.” (Hound partners with Yelp to show information like ratings and reviews for businesses along with contact information)
Hound was first announced as a private beta app on Android in June of last year. Mohajer says SoundHound wanted at least 1,000 beta testers to help give feedback before letting any download it on Android and iPhone. Over 300,000 people applied for access within the first three months.
110 total data partners, like Yelp, Uber, and Expedia, have integrated with Hound since it was unveiled in June with 50 partners. To put those numbers into perspective, Mohajer points out that Siri had 12 data partners 5 years ago and now it has 25.
Hound can replace Google Now as the default voice assistant on Android, but Apple doesn’t allow third-party apps to replace Siri on the iPhone. Mohajer sees the iPhone situation as
analogous to Google Maps vs. Apple Maps. People still seek out and use Google Maps over the iPhone’s built-in app because they like it better.
The Hound app is just the beginning for SoundHound. Thanks to the company’s developer program called Houndify, Mohajer says Hound will power everything from internet-connected speakers to thermostats. NVIDIA is helping integrate the assistant into future automobiles, and Samsung recently announced support for Hound in its Artik chip, which will power everything from fridges to drones.
Mohajer says thousands of companies are working on supporting Hound since the Houndify program was announced in mid December.
“We want to be everywhere,” he says. “In a few years you will be talking to everything around you. And it will be powered by us.”