Lifestyle

Siri’s sister Desti is a virtual tour guide to answer all your travel queries

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When planning a trip, it’s easy to get tangled in a mess of referrals, reviews, and recommendations. If only there was a personal assistant who could listen to your needs and find you exactly what you’re looking for. Now, for iPad owners, there is.

Desti is not just another travel app. It is a virtual tour guide that uses Artificial Intelligence and natural language processing to comprehend and respond to specific queries. The startup launched its open beta today.

The technology was developed out of SRI International, a prestigious research institute that conducts research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, and foundations. SRI is the same organization that gave birth to Siri, a virtual personal assistant that now lives on Apple’s latest mobile devices, and Trapit, a web scraper that captures the content on the web it thinks you will like best.

Desti is built with similar technology to Siri, but it specifically caters to travel needs. You type in a request, like “wineries in Napa” or “dog friendly hotels in San Francisco,” and Desti will surface the most relevant information. The results contain information culled from sources around the web, like the company’s website, TripAdvisor, FourSquare, Zagat etc. Each entry includes images as well as an about section, features, contact numbers, and aggregated reviews.

The search engine is able to analyze context, meaning and intent, rather than just indexing keywords. Once the semantic engine understands what you’re looking for, the relevancy engine will present personalized responses. If you’re searching for romantic restaurants but don’t want Italian food, Desti will keep that in mind.

“It’s like having an expert travel agent at your fingertips,” said founder Nadav Gur. “Desti relates to people, it understands people when they ask for something, and it interacts with you to refine your queries. It is the smartest travel guide ever.”

Desti is supported by a comprehensive database with information on accommodation, activities, restaurants, and more. The search puts all the information side by side, so it’s easy to compare, and all items can be “collected” and shared. Rather than spending hours researching online, planning a trip is as simple as asking Desti. This is not only significant within the travel realm, but for the technology community as a whole.

“We are a travel company, but what we are demonstrating here is the future of search,” said Gur. Search in general is going in this direction. People don’t want to see a list of ads or links and start researching; people want to ask questions and get a response. Soon, this will happen on all platforms. Search is changing.”

Gur was recruited by SRI in 2011 to help bring this technology to market. He previously founded two travel technology companies (Worldmate and Plnnr) and has dedicated himself to designing an easy-to-use and engaging user interface for the app. It is only available for iPad at the moment, but plans for an iPhone version are in the pipeline.

“As a startup, we are geared towards the consumers,” he said. “This is not a science experiment, we are trying to make our product serve a real need. We have taken some golden nuggets from SRI, but we are using them to build a greater vision. We built this app for the Pad because we believe that is the platform people like to use when they are planning trips.”

To start, the open beta will be available for Northern California. The team wanted to focus tightly on one region before widening the scope. There were about 100 early beta users, and as more people join the platform, the more knowledge Desti will acquire. Gur hopes to extend nationwide in the next year.

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