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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Web Search That Talks

A startup unveils a tool that generates a slick video for any topic you search for.

  • September 30, 2010

Ever wished for a search engine that could talk? Qwiki–a startup that took the TechCrunch Disrupt prize last night–has one.

Type in the name of one of several million people, places or other things and Qwiki will generate on-the-fly a short informative presentation of images, video and graphics narrated by a voice best described as a female HAL.

“With Qwiki information becomes an experience you can watch, generated entirely by machines,” co-founder Doug Imbruce told me. He started Qwiki with AltaVista founder and ex-Googler Loius Monier.

The tool grabs text from Wikipedia and other sources, I was told, although the examples shown seemed to simply read out the first sentence or two from Wikipedia verbatim. The visuals come from Flickr and elsewhere, and Qwiki can even generate graphs on the fly to throw into the mix, Imbruce said.

Qwiki’s alpha testing program is yet to launch and it hasn’t even released a video showing it in action, despite doing a live demo on stage using terms shouted out from the audience. “We may have launched a little early,” Monier told me early in the week, before letting me play with a version made for the iPad. It was a slick experience. After I typed in “quantum mechanics” I got a succinct narration and a mixture of images of scientists, equations and illustrations. That app will be ready in a few months, Monier told me, but emphasised that Qwiki is not a search engine.

“It’s never going to be used to find tax forms,” said Imbruce, “this is just the first application for what is a way to deliver information experiences with any kind of information.” He’s encouraging publishers to provide any kind of content to get the Qwiki treatment, giving restaurant reviews as one example. “We’re starting with reference topics but that is not the future, this is platform with many different use cases.”

To back up that claim the team also showed off a version that functions as an alarm. When Imbruce’s phone’s alarm went off Qwiki’s voice wished him a good morning before telling him the weather forecast for the day, reminding him of an upcoming meeting and saying that “you have a Facebook friend request from Nathalie Portman.”

I like the experience Qwiki provides, but must admit to being a little surprised it came out tops in a contest against all the other startups at Disrupt. As judges in the preliminary and final rounds pointed out, it is a little tough to think of a strong use case for it that will immediately garner millions of users, or of a solid way to monetize it. Looking up information online is a hurried and text-centric experience–witness Google Instant–watching videos is not.

It’s undeniable, though, that Qwiki looks great and feels futuristic. “I think it’s really polished, visually beautiful and well packaged,” said Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search, who judged the final round of pitches last night. That’s certainly not something you can say of all companies so young. Time will tell if Qwiki can come up with some applications for their slick information-presenting tech to match it’s appeal.

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