Bark Orders at Your PC--And Have It Obey Them--With HAL Ultra Assistant

If you're not a Sci-fi buff, you may not recognize the 2001: A Space Odyssey reference here. HAL was the slightly... okay, very dysfunctional computer with the dulcet voice from that famous movie. If you do get the reference, let's hope you also have a sense of humor and will trust Ultra HAL Assistant 6.2 ($30, 31-day free trial) to be your interactive AI pal. Or at the very least, have a couple of conversations with it--something the intelligence engine is said to learn and improve on over time. IMDB factoids aside, HAL is a lot of fun--but also a lot of work to set up and use.

You can interact with HAL by typing in queries and responses, but the program becomes truly useful when you add a microphone and voice recognition software such as IBM's ViaVoice or Nuance's Dragon Naturally Speaking. E.g., it's a lot easier to simply open Paint from the Start Menu than it is to open HAL and type in the request. Note: I had little luck with the mic built into my Webcam. Voice recognition requires a high-quality headset or mic like the Blue Microphones Snowflake I had sitting around.

I found HAL's interface a tad clunky. For instance, when HAL chattered on about something, sometimes the text display didn't scroll along with HAL's monologue. The stock computer-generated voices are occasionally hard to understand, so that scrolling would help. Also, the program would benefit greatly from a graphic redesign. Reallusion (makers of excellent facial animation software such as CrazyTalk Pro), meet Zabaware--you two were made for each other.

You're warned on one of the first screens that training HAL will take about two hours. I did have fun conversing with HAL, but an hour of hands-on proved insufficient to adequately train either Dragon Naturally Speaking or the program--especially for getting HAL to perform actions or remember data. I did, however, have enough success to convince me of the program's probable usefulness.

It's obvious the programmers have a sense of humor, and forgive me, but I had to try the obvious. HAL's response to "Open the pod bay doors..." was "The program "THE POD BAY DOORS" was not found in my database." Then after what probably only seemed like a slight hesitation... "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave." That alone was worth the download.

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