Peter Lamonica ’07 became a tech mini-celebrity last fall when he cracked the iPhone’s Siri voice-recognition program, racking up 440,000 views on his YouTube “how to” video and landing on Wired.com and other sites.
But the most entertaining part? That was when Kevin Jonas – yes, from The Jonas Brothers – started following him on Twitter. Jonas has more than 2 million followers on Twitter but was himself following fewer than 100 at the time, so Lamonica was quite amused when the actor/musician started chatting him up about his Siri project.
“That was the most surreal, strange experience,” said Lamonica, an Illinois State School of Information Technology computer science grad.
The much-anticipated iPhone 5 is expected to be announced by Apple on Wednesday, capping a yearlong period of Web-driven speculation since the iPhone 4S was unveiled. That was the first model to feature Siri, which can give you the weather forecast or your daily calendar if prompted by your voice.
It’s pretty slick, but Lamonica wasn’t satisfied just asking Siri if he should bring an umbrella to work.
“I immediately thought it would be fun to make it do things it wasn’t intended to do,” he said.
So he tried to crack the technology himself, but hit a roadblock and couldn’t get past the encryption. Then, several weeks after Siri was released, a French company called Applidium figured out how to see what was going on within Siri – when it heard a voice and turned it into a programming command.
That’s when Lamonica, who lives outside St. Louis and works as a Web developer for a financial-services firm, got creative. Siri sends data back and forth from Apple when it hears a voice, and Lamonica set up an intermediary (called a “proxy server”) to see that data, react to it, and even change it.
Lamonica’s creation, called SiriProxy, was the first of its kind, and he showed it off to the world by setting it up to control his home’s thermostat by voice command. The YouTube video (posted below) took off, and Lamonica became a verified tech celebrity.
“I just kind of watched it explode from there,” said Lamonica, the son of two Illinois State employees.
The University High School graduate, now 27, has been into computers since he was a kid, following in his brother’s footsteps and learning how to program on an old Apple IIc (2C). The Siri project was typical for Lamonica, he says. Whether it’s building a new website or setting up a media server for his home, Lamonica loves throwing himself at a new technology – a “self-learning” crash course, as he puts it.
In this case, he got to learn Ruby, the programming language on which SiriProxy is built.
“I get on a project for a few months at a time. I’ll play with it for a while, learn what I want to learn, and get bored,” he said. “This one just happened to coincide with what other people thought was cool.”
As for the new iPhone, Lamonica has a few educated guesses as to what it will feature – namely a taller, wider design, a new dock connector at the base, and probably a short-range communication ability (called “NFC”) that could spur increased adoption of mobile payment applications.
Lamonica can’t really speculate on what improvements may be coming to Siri, however, because he’s part of Apple’s operating system developer program, meaning he’s sworn to secrecy on stuff he may be testing out before it’s released widely. He doesn’t think he’ll buy the new iPhone when it’s released this fall as expected – he just bought the 4S a year ago – but he won’t rule it out either.
“Apple has a way of throwing stuff at us, that ‘one more thing’ thing that they’re so good at,” he said. “We’ll see what they announce. We’ll see if they have ‘one more thing’ that’ll blow us away.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.