News & Views

Guide / Watch Your Words

by Contagious Team

Miami-based startup turns your RSS feed into a personalized newscast

Now there will always be something worth watching on television. Guide, a software application launching in private alpha today, taps into your favorite online news sources and transforms them into watchable video channels. Say goodbye to scrolling with one hand and eating your cereal with the other as you get your news at breakfast. Instead, Guide promises a traditional TV experience, personalised to your web preferences. Think of it as a presentation layer between your favorite blogs and your TV set.

Here's how it works: Guide taps into your chosen websites and RSS feeds, creating a distinct 'channel' for each news source. Individual articles are presented as separate 'episodes' in a programming guide, much like the familiar TV Guide channel. Guide users can select a story or let the service play through the stories on a particular channel in order.

Then the magic happens. Rather than a clunky display of text on a screen, each article is transformed into a newscast, complete with animated newsroom and an anchor avatar reading the copy on the page. Photos are plucked from the article and displayed next to the anchor, and any videos embedded in the article are seamlessly integrated into the playback of a story.

Guide offers customizable avatars, ranging from humans to dogs to anime characters. Around one in five people experience an Uncanny Valley effect, wherein human avatars make them uneasy, so the service has plenty of non-homo sapien options.

'We're effectively faking video,' says Guide founder Freddie Laker, who calls the service a 'news reader on steroids.'

Laker, former founder of the iChameleon Group and formerly vice president of strategy at SapientNitro, first conceived of Guide after seeing a wave of Smart TVs and Smart TV content at CES in 2011. 'I think it's obvious that we like the amplification of devices,' says Laker, pointing at now ubiquitous devices like tablets and smartphones. With Smart TV, he says, 'it's a matter of the software and hardware catching up with ambition.'

His ambition is clear: Change the way people interact with online content, making it easier for online news junkies to consumer more and more news from a wide variety of sources. Passively.

There's a gap between the way people prefer to consumer content and the way they most often do it, according to Laker. Internet users prefer watching videos to reading articles 2 to 1, but 97% of all internet content is either text, photo, or audio. Add to that the fact that 25% of internet users in the United States utilize a blog aggregator and you have a market ripe for disruption.

'I became obsessed with it, and I kept chipping away until I was able to figure out how to do it quite successfully,' says Laker. 'I've never had a project where the output actually exceeded my original vision. Guide has done that.'

Today, the seven-person company announced it closed a $1m round of seed funding, with a diverse group of investors that includes Sapient, Knight Foundation, MTV founder Bob Pitman, and actor Omar Epps. The Miami-based startup plans to launch in public beta at SXSW this year.

'We are a wildly ambitious group. I believe that we've achieved more than I ever thought would be possible,' says Laker. But his plans for growing and monetizing Guide don't stop yet.

For example, the team is working on a Wordpress plugin that will allow publishers to record custom voiceovers for the over 4.1 million blog posts published on the platform each month. Authors and publishers can then send those voiceovers to Guide, replacing the default text-to-speech anchor's voice. If Laker's vision plays out, 'a huge chunk of all the voices will be coming through human voices and text-to-speech will become a fallback.'

The company also intends to monetize via in-app purchases of additional anchor avatars and newsroom renderings. The 'cats' pack, for example, might open up feline avatars in a cat-themed newsroom for a few dollars. Down the line, Guide even envisions brand partnerships. Imagine Halo's Master Chief avatar reading all video game-related content, or a Cover Girl model reading beauty articles.

'The best thing from an advertiser's perspective is you can't ignore anchors,' says Laker. 'This is absolutely a new form of native advertising.'