Miami-based startup Guide today announced its seed funding round of $1 million, from investors including Sapient, The Knight Foundation and actor Omar Epps. The company is also launching the alpha version of its product today, which aims to be the next generation in online news delivery, by pairing text-to-speech technologies with online news and blog feeds to create curated, personalized video news.
Guide does that by providing you with a virtual “anchor” to read back feeds from your favorite sites for you, so that you can turn it on and have it run in the background while you do other things instead. It’s like something ripped out of a sci-fi flick; your digital avatar reads back the news with a voice resembling a human one, but with a tone we’ve all come to recognize as computerized, and users can pick their own avatar newsreader according to their tastes. The anchor, Guide believes, provides not only a functional purpose in reading back the news, but also an emotional connection, and works as a monetization route since it’ll be opened up to outside brand sponsors, and in-app purchases for avatar upgrades.
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A lean-back experience for news sourced online is a natural extension from services like Flipboard in many ways, but Guide’s take on personalizing the means of delivery is its most noteworthy contribution. The avatars themselves, as you can see in the video, are more than a little freaky, but Guide CEO and co-founder Freddie Laker says that’s something that they’re working on, and besides, it’s mostly temporary.
“This is absolutely on our radar from early testing,” Laker said in an interview. “We’ve noticed about one-in-five of our testers have an issue with the human avatars (‘news anchors’). However, these same users are fine when the news anchors are robots, animals or even anime characters.” He also added that while people are “hyper-focused on the avatar technology” when they first use it, they’ve seen with their test groups that over time they focus less on the tech. He also says he’s confident Guide will get much closer to a TV-level experience in about two or three years’ time.
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Guide’s private alpha launch today will be followed up with a public beta launch in early March, but for now you can check out the videos embedded in this post to see what it’s all about. Laker says that all of the anchors depicted will be free during their alpha stage as they look to identify the ones with the most potential for revenue-generation, but eventually the company will monetize popular options, as well as form partnerships with publishers and advertisers to offer sponsored and branded newsrooms and virtual avatars.
Is the future of news really in the virtual hands of avatars churning through online feeds? It’s a definite possibility, given the dwindling fortunes of traditional news media outlets like CNN, and the rising success and profile of players like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post that include a lot of aggregation in how they operate. Guide’s success will depend on whether individuals want to take personalized feeds and roll them back into a method of delivery that largely mimics the Golden Age of modern television news, with a modern technological twist.