T-Mobile’s Genius voice-command button just got a lot smarter

Anyone who has ever owned a T-Mobile MyTouch is familiar with the little button on the lower right-hand corner labeled with stylized “G.” It’s T-Mobile’s Genius button, which, once pushed, allows you to issue basic voice commands from calling or texting a contact to searching the web or Google Maps(s goog). If you’ve used it before then you know: Siri(s aapl) it’s not.

The service’s vocabulary and contextual understanding is pretty limited. For instance, if you ask Genius to “find a restaurant” it will pull up the nearest eatery on Google Maps. But if you ask it to find “nearby restaurants” it searches Maps for a joint named “Nearby.” If you’re like me, you’ve probably fiddled with the button a few times and never touched it again, despite its relative convenience on the phone’s faceplate.

But T-Mobile has given Genius a much-needed overhaul, at least on the latest versions of the MyTouch manufactured by Huawei. Nuance Communications(s nuan), which powers the voice-recognition features on T-Mobile devices, is upgrading Genius’ capabilities and the features of the Genius service, providing a deeper level of natural-language understanding and integrating the service with a much broader array of content sources beyond Maps and Google Search.

For instance, if I were to ask the new Genius for nearby restaurants, it would not only understand my intent but also do its searching on Yelp, pulling up dining options nearby and displaying their rankings and reviews. If I were to change that command to “make a reservation at nearby restaurants,” it would bring me to OpenTable’s website and display eateries in the vicinity that accept online bookings.

If this sounds familiar then you’ve probably used Nuance’s consumer semantic-search app, Dragon Go, available for Android and iOS smartphones. In fact, if you look at the long list of 200 content partners the Genius can access, they’re the same used by Dragon Go. Nuance wouldn’t acknowledge specifically that T-Mobile is white-labeling the semantic-search app, but it’s pretty obvious that’s exactly what it’s doing — and it’s by no means a bad thing. I’m a big fan of Nuance’s intuitive little search app, and being able to access it in fewer steps is a bonus.

The official line, though, is that T-Mobile has basically upgraded its relationship with Nuance to a kind of platinum status. The old Genius tapped into Nuance’s basic speech-recognition APIs, but it had none of the rules-based language-parsing abilities of Nuance’s more-sophisticated offerings. By adding greater contextual understanding and a host of content providers, T-Mobile may be able to turn a pretty lame voice-command feature into something quite useful. So far, though, it’s only available on the MyTouch and MyTouch Q.

Both T-Mobile and Nuance will be represented at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference next month. Nuance CTO Vlad Sejnoha will be speaking on a panel about the future smartphone interface on Sept. 20, while T-Mobile SVP of marketing Brad Duea will discuss the evolution of voice services on Sept. 21.