The Alexa Podcast - Episode 6
Co-hosts: Bradley Metrock (CEO, Score Publishing) and Kevin Old (software developer, LifeWay)
Guests: Matt Hammersley,
Duration: 26 minutes, 58 seconds
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:11] Hi, and welcome back to The Alexa Podcast, Episode 6, for October 18th, 2017. My name is Bradley Metrock - I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing, based here in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:27] My co-host is Kevin Old - Kevin, say hello!
Kevin Old: [00:00:30] Hey everyone.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:31] Kevin is a software developer here in town for LifeWay. Kevin, it's great to be back with you.
Kevin Old: [00:00:36] Absolutely.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:38] Our guest today is the company Novel Effect. These folks are doing amazing work, and I'm looking forward to exploring what it is they're doing and communicating their take on modern interactive storytelling. But before we get into it, we've got three folks from Novel Effect on the show. If each one of you can introduce yourselves, give your title and explain what you do.
Matt Hammersley: [00:01:05] Sure, so my name is Matt Hammersley - I'm CEO of Novel Effect. And thank you both for having us on today.
Eric Goetz: [00:01:13] My name's Eric Goetz. I'm the director of audio content production, so I manage all our composers and sound designers that actually create the soundscapes that are at the core experience of our product.
Chris Roach: [00:01:26] And my name is Chris Roach, and I am a soundscape designer/composer. Thanks for having us.
Bradley Metrock: [00:01:32] Absolutely. And thanks to all three of you for setting the time aside.
Bradley Metrock: [00:01:36] So Novel Effect...the way I would describe it, is an interactive storytelling experience in which Alexa will, through a mobile app, listen to a person read a book to another person, and in real time, detect the words and provide in-sync audio soundscapes, sound effects, different audio cues that complement the in-person reading experience. Do I have this right?
Matt Hammersley: [00:02:20] Yeah, that's pretty close. That's our basic set up. We use voice recognition to play theme music, sound effects, and character's voices as you read a book aloud. We are focusing in the beginning with children's books, because it's really about providing an experience that lets parent and child or teacher and their students interact together face-to-face, but still get that interactive immersive experience in the digital world.
Bradley Metrock: [00:02:53] So Novel Effect is part of the TechStars Alexa Accelerator. My first question for y'all is how did you come up with this idea? I'm sure there's a story here. Let's hear it.
Matt Hammersley: [00:03:06] Yeah. So about two years ago, I had a baby shower for our daughter before she was born. And we had one of our friends read aloud the book that she brought to us as a gift. Her name's Toby. I'm just giving her a shout out. But she's a phenomenal storyteller. And she augmented the story with fun voices and sound effects. She had a room of adults and kids captivated by reading a book for a two-year-old. I am a patent attorney by trade. And I've done patent work in the voice recognition space and it was really kind of a light bulb moment. If every parent could read a story like her, all kids would love to read. And it pretty much utterly consumed me. I was up that night doing patent searches, seeing if it was out there. And no one was really close to that kind of experience. And so, within about three months we filed a bunch of patents, I quit my job, we sold our house, and started the company.
Bradley Metrock: [00:04:12] Very cool. So if you go on NovelEffect.com, you've got a lot of great resources. You've got a video that very clearly shows a use case of a mother reading to two daughters. Some pictures that show books being read in a classroom taking advantage of the technology. My question for you is have you thought about or is it in progress, some sort of analysis that indicates to educators, "OK here's this group of kids who read Cat in the Hat without Novel Effect and here's this group of kids over here that read Cat in the Hat with Novel Effect and they both took a quiz afterward and the ones that had Novel Effect had showed greater comprehension, greater vocabulary retention, etc."... is anything like that in the plans?
Matt Hammersley: [00:05:11] Actually that's a great point and it's something that we solved very early on, it was happening just anecdotally. So we're pretty privileged in that we're working with Dr. Anne Cunningham who is a leading researcher in early childhood education and literacy at UC Berkeley … she's head of graduate studies there. And we're working together to do pretty much exactly what you just described, to document and prove what we saw anecdotally of those improvements in literacy reading comprehension and retention.
Bradley Metrock: [00:05:50] Once you got that and you can show the data and everything, I think the world's already opening up for you … you’ve got a fantastic product … but that's certainly the thing I wanted to ask about first. The next question I've got for y'all is, and it's for each of the three of you, what has been the most exciting part of this process? It's interesting to hear. Matt, you talked about how you were a patent attorney and now you're getting into this sort of totally different realm and you're dealing with children and you're dealing with something that's so significant - literacy and education. If each of the three of you could just share what the most impactful moment, even in this brief journey. What’s that been for you so far?
Matt Hammersley: [00:06:34] You know, for me … and it goes back to that first question ... one of our other co-founders is a special education teacher for children with visual impairments. And the first time that I saw one of her kids read a Braille book out loud with Novel Effect, I knew we had something. You know, their faces just lit up and it was just an incredible experience because we were able to connect the story to that child in a way that they had never experienced before. So for me that was one of the most exciting moments of this journey so far.
Eric Goetz: [00:07:12] I think what's most exciting to me is just the fact that this is a brand new medium for music and audio and storytelling. There're no rules yet. So we are getting to define sort of the rules and best practices and creative decision-making that goes into creating a Novel Effect enabled story.
Chris Roach: [00:07:35] The opportunity to bring alive some books from my own childhood that have never had the audio aspect to it … and it's like Eric just mentioned, it's a new way of storytelling. So the visual inspiration is there for you but it's a whole new world as far as creative, and you get free range to just bring your own take to that, which is fun. As a composer there's no rules, there's no limitations to that and it's just a whole new immersive experience.
Bradley Metrock: [00:08:03] So we've got a show on VoiceFirst FM called This Week in Voice and each week we explore the rapidly evolving landscape in voice technology and the theme of this show has been Amazon blazing the trail. Amazon is spending a lot of money, investing a lot of resources into voice technology. They believe in it, it's clear; and I believe in it too. We all do. And my question for y'all is: describe how great it's been working with Amazon - not just in the context of the TechStars incubator but just the fact that you got the Amazon tailwind and all the resources they're putting behind voice technology. Talk to us a little bit about how much that has helped to realize the vision for Novel Effect.
Matt Hammersley: [00:08:58] You know, working with Amazon, it has been such a treat. We're based here in Seattle and we're kind of in their backyard and when they reached out to us to come join the accelerator, it was definitely a golden opportunity. We were a little wary at first. You know Amazon has a history of being very competitive. But then on day one they really opened up their doors to us and allowed us to work with and talk with basically any team at Amazon that we wanted, from the Alexa services team to the communications team to Fire television to the bookstore team. They really have been behind us and it's been really cool to see their enthusiasm in what we're doing. And providing not just expertise and knowledge but also putting their engineers behind helping us and creating the best possible user experience on the platform.
Kevin Old: [00:10:09] That's awesome to hear. I want to congratulate all of you guys on such an awesome idea and execution into what I think is technology used in the right way that complements the situation rather than takes over. I'm a parent. And so from a parental perspective … we read books with our kids and I instantly got the idea in that it could add to the storytelling experience when we read a book. So I just want to congratulate you guys on this idea and the execution. The first question I have is from your website … this is rolled out and demo’ed as using an Apple device … can you talk a little bit about the platform independence and the association with Alexa that you guys have for that platform?
Matt Hammersley: [00:11:09] Yes, so the Novel Effect experience is pretty ubiquitous in that it can work on pretty much any platform with a microphone and a speaker. So we rolled it out on mobile first but what we're really excited about is these #VoiceFirst platforms like Alexa because the user experience is just so cool. And so when our experience opens on Alexa, which is coming soon, it's not available yet....breaking ground and doing new things always take time. But the user experience on Alexa will be like, "Alexa! I want to read Wolfie the Bunny with Novel Effect." And it starts the experience. You never have to bring a device out or put a screen in front. And the beauty of the mobile platform too is that we're trying to not make screens a barrier to that personal communication and interaction. And what we saw in the industry around books and around publishing was that most systems and experiences were trying to replace the parent from it and be something that you just give the kid and walk away. And to me as a father, I don't like it. I love reading with my daughter, and finding a way to capture and maintain her attention throughout any book is really what we were going for there. So I think the beauty of the system is that it can work cross-platform. It'll be on mobile, it'll be on Alexa and we are also talking with Apple and Google as well about having our system on their #VoiceFirst platforms.
Kevin Old: [00:12:56] Yeah, that's awesome that you guys thought about that cross-platform bit here and were really embracing these devices. So the next question is ... without diving too deep, what challenges did you guys face in developing the user interaction? I know that there are a number of challenges I faced capturing just the user's style of speaking and making that something that I can work with from one of these platforms. Can you talk a little bit about some of those challenges and how you guys were able to respond to them?
Matt Hammersley: [00:13:37] Yes, sure. When we started on this journey trying to develop a proof of concept it was actually quite easy to do half of one book. But to develop a system that works for any book in any language at a granularity of response and a low latency scenario was really tough ... it took a lot of practice, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of wonderful families out there that were helping us fine-tune the experience. Voice is such an interesting dynamic as opposed to touch, or keyboards, in that there are a lot of unknowns. Accuracy is not perfect. People speak in different speeds and different styles with different accents and developing and designing a system that can work with all of these use cases, particularly with kids involved, wasn't easy. What I really love about our platform is that you can behave in any way that you want in how you read stories with your children. Everyone reads differently. Kids can ask questions in the middle of a story without interrupting the experience, you can start on the first page and then jump to the middle and then go back and read the first page again. And our system will always pick up, track, and follow wherever you are in that story. The other kind of biggest hurdle was privacy. We are complementing a parent in one of these experiences. It's an intimate time with you and your child. And we wanted to ensure that there was complete comfort in what we are doing and how we set up our system. So, for example, our platform and technology only listens for the text of the book. Nothing else. So when you have a conversation with your child that is free form in the middle of a story, reading with Novel Effect, our software returns a null result, meaning, I have no idea. We don't store, we don't track any of that audio data and just listen for the text of the book and that was really kind of an important aspect of how the system works and what we wanted to accomplish in bringing this platform to life.
Kevin Old: [00:16:10] Question for Eric and Chris, in your roles ... what has been a newer challenge with designing the aspects that you guys designed for this product?
Eric Goetz: [00:16:21] One of the biggest challenges is, we need breadth of content; so one of the friction points for a new user adopting our platform is, do they own the book already and can they try it out immediately with a book that's on their shelf? So we need to have a a broad selection of popular books and obscure books as well but we also need to make sure that each book has the highest quality possible and really creates a memorable immersive experience that makes a potential customer want to come back and try it again and use it again and make it part of their life. Another thing is the fact that our music has to adapt to what the user is doing based on the speed that they're talking or if they're skipping around in a book, we want an immersive experience that doesn't break that emergence. And there’s some prior art from that with the video game world then but it's very different. This is a much tighter experience than a video game. Things are responding to you immediately, it feels much more like an animated movie in the way that the music and the sound effects respond to where you're at in the story. So it's kind of an odd mix between traditional film scoring and then more of the newer videogame scoring. So we've got a lot of interesting challenges from that regard.
Chris Roach: [00:18:02] This is Chris. Just to kind of second what Eric was saying on there's no timeline to follow because every user that's reading this book is going to be speaking at different speeds, different accents, stopping and starting. So to me it leans more towards the videogame aspects but it's even more immersive than that because it's constantly changing and evolving like instant sound effects, triggering new music and loops. And as a new user, our new sound creator, I should say there's also the aspect of learning the new interface. I've been going back and forth with Eric on that. That was just a new thing for me. And outside of the world of Logic and Pro Tools. To pick up on and digest and get creative with.
Bradley Metrock: [00:18:48] Very cool. I'm sure every company in the Alexa incubator feels this way. I'm sure every company that is working with Amazon feels this way. But from my standpoint very few companies are more impacted by all of Amazon's new products and constant pushing the market forward by y'all. And when you spoke earlier about how great it is to have their support ... I want to follow that up with asking you, do you have plans, and can you share them if you do, on how you might leverage the Echo Show with Novel Effect, and also like the Kindle tablets where they've integrated Alexa? Either one of those, obviously Novel Effect would be a great fit, can you share with us a little bit what your plans are for the #VoiceFirst devices that also have a screen presence?
Matt Hammersley: [00:19:45] Sure. I can talk about it a little. We actually have been working on some pretty cool stuff with animations where we will soon be coming out with basically voice interactive television where video and animations will respond as you play your character in your favorite story. So it's kind of combining reader theater with television in a way that makes watching TV an interactive social experience. It's something I'm really excited about, about what the possibilities are and what it can do. You can imagine being able to start an X-Men episode and you get to be Wolverine and you get to act out Wolverine's lines and play his part while all the rest of the characters including voiceovers, video, animation, sound effects, theme music, all dynamically respond to you. I think that's going to be a tremendous experience that will redefine what it means... you will no longer will watch TV, you will be IN the TV, so to speak, and I think as a parent I'm really excited about that because I don't let my daughter watch TV or be on screens. But when she is old enough and I do let her do that, I would like it to be something that still involves reading and role playing and interacting rather than just statically staring at a screen and/or pressing buttons.
Bradley Metrock: [00:21:31] Very interesting. So my other question for you … obviously we're involved deeply in the publishing world. I'm a big advocate for self-publishing and tools for people to use to create content and the democratization of content creation ... any plans to allow individual users to publish their own stories and publish their audio and have Novel Effect set up in a way where it can intelligently take in that input and construct the experience?
Matt Hammersley: [00:22:10] Yeah 100 percent, it's like you've seen our product roadmap. We've already developed it. We just haven't released it yet. But it is our full intent to open up the content creation platform for stakeholders like publishers as well as end users, to write and create their own stories and design their own music and sound effects and use our tool to kind of correlate those to the story. And so we absolutely want to see every child and every parent be able to create their own masterpieces. And we have a couple of other cool things coming out around that too. We have, for example, what we call record your own audio book. Where you can narrate your favorite story. And our software will instantaneously layer in the music and sound effects in the right spots and you can replay that audio book either through Alexa or on a mobile device where you can then say, "Alexa. read Where the Wild Things Are by Mom," and have her actual voice come in and be the narrator of the story.
Bradley Metrock: [00:23:29] That's kind of crazy. That's fascinating. And no, I haven't seen your product roadmap, but I'm glad. Glad y'all are thinking about these things because honestly somebody needs to. We need new experiences for children that adequately and appropriately take advantage of the technology that we have. And as Kevin so eloquently put it, don't shove it down kids' throats but instead create sort of a complementary experience. I think that's what it's all about. And I think that's really at the heart of what y'all are doing. And it's part of what makes it so exciting.
Matt Hammersley: [00:24:08] Thank you very much. I think you're right on and how we think about it and kind of our mission and goals here are absolutely to provide tools to parents and teachers rather than replace them. And give them the ability to capture and maintain their kid's attention and inspire their imaginations. That's really what this is all about.
Bradley Metrock: [00:24:33] It's a beautiful thing. And we just acquired the Digital Book World Conference and the whole Digital Book World business from F+W Media, but the core of it is the conference, the annual influential longstanding publishing conference. And we need to have y'all at that because everybody who's doing, certainly the people in trade publishing, but also people doing all sorts of other types of publishing across every sector, need to be aware of what you're doing because I think it's fascinating. Before we go ... share with us where Novel Effect is available right this moment and the price. And then at what point will it be available on Alexa as well?
Matt Hammersley: [00:25:14] Right now it is available on iOS. You can just search Novel Effect in the App Store and get it there. What's currently available is kind of a public beta with a limited library. There's about 25 books that are in there, and then in about a week we are going to be launching our full version with over 150 books in that library and it'll soon be coming to Android as well in probably about a month and following that, I don't have a specific timetable for Alexa yet, but hopefully we can get it up before the end of the year.
Bradley Metrock: [00:25:53] Very cool. And finally for anybody listening to this who is as enthralled with Novel Effect as we are and wants to reach out to you - what's the best way for them to do that?
Matt Hammersley: [00:26:04] Just e-mail us .. there's some contact information on the Web site … and if you want to get in touch with me directly it's Matt@novel-effect.com.
Bradley Metrock: [00:26:13] Very cool. Gentlemen, thank you very, very much for sharing your time and your insight with us today.
Matt Hammersley: [00:26:18] Thank you so much for having us. And by the way, I absolutely would love to be a part of the Digital Book World conference. And thank you for that invitation.
Bradley Metrock: [00:26:26] Sure. That is a total no-brainer.
Bradley Metrock: [00:26:30] For The Alexa Podcast, thank you for listening, and until next time.