Your Next News Anchor May Be a Robot

Whether you know it or not, you may want your online news to be in TV format.


Would you prefer your news read to you by a puppy?

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There may be a new way to do TV news. One that doesn't involve tuning out for human interest stories and morning-show anchors playing with baby animals. One that allows viewers to pick out exactly which stories they hear and which they skip. Not to mention one that could diminish the drama of the Matt Lauers and the Katie Courics of the world negotiating contracts and duking it out for anchor spots.

At least, that's what one company is hoping. A startup named Guide is working on a way to transform nearly any online article into a video news piece. The goal is to let viewers curate their own personalized newscasts from the news sites and blogs they already read. The service's computerized characters read the stories, interspersing them with photos, videos, and infographics already included with the stories. Completing the TV-newscast feel, online comments run along the bottom of the screen in a ticker, and commercials will run between segments, as in any TV newscast.

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The idea is not far removed from services like Google Reader or Flipboard, which let readers assemble the news they want to read on one page. But the format is radically new, confronting Guide with the elemental question that faces any company rolling out an entirely new product: whether or not there is sufficient demand. If the answer is yes, it could fundamentally change how online journalists do their work—and how the audience consumes their content.

Freddie Laker, the company's founder, believes that consumers will buy wholeheartedly into the idea of text-to-video news. Laker says he had the idea for Guide at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

"That year, everything was about smart TVs. But I remember looking at the smart TVs and thinking to myself, 'This is a really terrible user experience right now,' " says Laker, referring to television sets that can connect to the Internet. Though it's still a relatively new technology, Laker became convinced that Web-enabled television was the wave of the future, and he set out to be one of the first people to ride that wave.

"I started thinking about things that are underserved in the TV world, and one of those was online news consumption," he says. "When I started thinking about reading news on TV, [that experience] was broken. There's just so many other devices where it's better to read. I started thinking, what's going to drive the TV world? And it's this very simple insight that people want TV experiences on their TV."

The point, he says, is not to get people to stop reading; that is something that news consumers will always want. Instead, Guide wants to provide people with the ability to have the hands-free, semi-engaged experience that they do with conventional television news: watching it at the gym or while cooking supper.

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While Guide aspires to a TV-like experience, it has some key differences. For example, customers can choose a non-human "avatar" to read the news—a puppy, an anime character, or a purple-haired punk rocker could sit in the virtual anchor chair. Avatars could be another chief source of revenue for Guide, with customers paying a small fee to purchase celebrities or new animals to read them the news. This is also another opportunity for advertising—a film company releasing a new movie may issue an avatar in the form of a character from that movie. Famous bloggers may also want to issue premium content and create their own avatars to deliver it—customers may pay more to see Perez Hilton or Thomas Friedman deliver their articles, says Laker.

Some of the differences between Guide and broadcast news, however, are unintentional. One hurdle the company faces is the pesky problem of how to make the avatars seem lifelike. Avatars in demo videos currently up on the Guide website feature robotic delivery and imperfect lip-syncing. However, Laker says that even since making the demo videos, there have been "huge breakthroughs in the quality of the avatar technology," and that the company may eventually feature human readings of some stories.