SRI spinout Desti builds a Siri-like personal travel assistant

Apple’s Siri (s aapl) works pretty well as a personal assistant but it’s not equipped to be your virtual travel guide. But Desti which, like Siri, is a spin out from SRI International, is launching today in public beta and is looking to take on that job for consumers.

Desti, which is debuting as an iPad app, offers users the ability to pose travel questions and get back specific recommendations on hotels, restaurants and events. The service, which is limited to Northern California for now, was built using SRI’s artificial intelligence technology, combined with natural language processing, semantic search and a travel-specific knowledge base. The system uses contextual clues and what it knows about a user to return relevant results, which are displayed on a very visual results page.

Desti, travel

So for instance, I can type in “Hotels near Moscone Center with a gym for under $200,” into the Desti’s instant messenger interface. Desti responds with a batch of results it thinks best match my request. It might just be a handful of places but Desti can show the results it’s confident about.

The results appear like cards with pictures, listing off Desti’s own rating, what amenities the hotel has and what good and important things to keep in mind. It also features additional resources and tips. If it needs more information to help it narrow its search, Desti will ask for it. Users can save a destination in their collection and they can share that with other users.

Desti is able to understand context when a user interacts with it. If I’m looking at a destination and ask what else is around, it pulls up results related to my last search. And if the weather is cold, it can change its results to find you something to do indoors. The service is designed for text input but you could easily do voice dictation with the latest versions of the iPad.

Like many new travel services, Desti also taps your social graph. So it can learn your tastes from Facebook (s fb) likes and you can share your collections with others. And when you visit a place where another user has been, Desti will let you know and see what comments they’ve left.

Desti co-founder and CEO Nadav Gur said what users really need is more than just suggestions from friends or a basic search engine. Users need a travel-oriented search engine that uses artificial intelligence to understand their intent, so they’re not just getting back links, but actual answers.

Desti, travel Desti’s knowledge relies on about a numbers services like Factual, Wikipedia and Foursquare for data. It gets its hotel information from Hotels Combined, which gives a referral fee to Desti. Desti, however, doesn’t try to guide people to hotels where it can make money. The service also doesn’t cover flights at the moment though that will likely come at a later date.

Desti spun out of SRI a year ago and has raised $1.5 million from Carmel Ventures and Horizon Ventures, which also invested in Siri.

I wish Desti worked with an iPhone or smartphone. Right now, you have to email yourself to sync your research and saved collections to a smartphone, which is the device that’s more likely to be carried around on trips. Desti also faces a lot of competition from a host of social travel apps, services like TripAdvisor and of course, Google (s goog), which is loading up on travel services and is working on its own semantic search efforts. But I’d like to give Desti a try when it opens up to more locations. Travel planning is still not as enjoyable or easy as it ought to be.