Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

A Passive Newsreader App: Guide Wants Its Avatars to Read Your News

There are times when it’s inconvenient to read — for instance while cooking or working out at the gym — so you might find yourself tuning into a TV newscast. But perhaps instead of facile local news or the jabbering heads of cable news, it could be a personalized newscast.

That’s the goal of a Miami-based startup called Guide, backed by investors including the Knight Foundation, which is making an app where users can choose from a variety of avatars to present stories from their favorite news sites.

It is totally wacky. An alpha version of the product had me fixating on the “uncanny valley” of a near-human lady with shiny lipgloss reading me a story in a halting voice with her mouth barely moving. (See below.)

But the more smooth part of the demo was when the robot newscaster transitioned to a video segment included in the news report, and then back to the text.

Guide founder and CEO Freddie Laker said in an interview that he feels this interpretation of multimedia content will be key — separating out videos and photos and pull quotes, and turning them into an engaging presentation. A long, text-heavy story won’t be ideal for Guide.

The company is working on a plugin for WordPress that would help bloggers record their posts so they can be automatically converted into Guide segments, with avatars lip-syncing them.

Guide’s first app will be for iOS, with a focus on tablets, Laker said. It’s supposed to be released to the public next month. Later this year, the company wants to build for the television and browsers. The Guide avatar treatment will work for any site with an RSS feed, Laker said.

Laker, who is a former SapientNitro VP, said he expects Guide’s business model to be charging for celebrity avatars and voices. To that end, actor Omar Epps is an adviser to the company.

Because stories are presented within a clickable app where viewers can interact with the original content and ads as they would in a browser, Laker said he believes that publishers will be fine with Guide reinterpreting their content. Laker said he licensed the avatar technology from Sony.

Other startups doing similar things include Qwiki (which started out hyped, but now is very quiet) and an upcoming app called Winston, from a startup called Reactor Labs, that reads social news updates in a British accent.

Guide has raised $1 million from Knight Foundation, Sapient Corporation, MTV founder Bob Pittman, early Google employee Steve Schimmel and others.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google