Start-Up of the Week

A TV news channel in your iPhone, with Wibbitz

Why strain your eyes reading the small print on your iPhone screen? An Israeli-made app lets you see — and hear — that news article, instead

Imagine putting your daily newspaper through a shrink machine, with the version coming out on the other side no bigger than 4 inches high and two inches wide. It sounds ridiculous — and unreadable — but that is exactly what millions of people are doing every day with their iPhones, says Zohar Dayan, CEO of Israeli start-up Wibbitz.

“People are trying to read content on their smartphone devices in exactly the same way they have reading newspapers for 300 years. The newspaper medium just wasn’t designed for such a small screen,” Dayan told the Times of Israel. “Video, on the other hand, is a perfect medium for small screens. That’s why we created Wibbitz.”

After two years of work and a months-long closed beta test, Wibbitz is going public this week, with a free iPhone and iPad app that lets users automatically convert news stories into videos. Instead of squinting at the small print on a screen, an automated voice reads out a news story on one of dozens of news sites, with the audio accompanied by still photos, videos, and infographics relating to the story.

Thus, a news item about a flood in the Midwest will be accompanied by photos from news agencies, pictures of rising flood waters, graphics showing the relative rise of water levels in rivers, photos of refugees seeking shelter, maps, music clips — whatever the story discusses, Wibbitz will comb the web to find the appropriate content, match it to the audio being read out, and deliver it in a slick, TV news-format style.

The free app currently works in over two dozen languages.

It may look slick on the screen, but there is a lot of back-end technology that goes into Wibbitz, said Dayan. “Everything is done automatically with advanced algorithms that analyze the text of an article, extract the highlights and translate them into video summaries that merge images, video clips, infographics, and text-to-speech. By utilizing industry-leading Natural Language Processing (NLP) technologies, and narrowing down texts into 1-2 minute videos, the Wibbitz app enables users to more effectively engage with media content,” he said.

Running Wibbitz isn’t cheap, either; while the company can use any free content on news sites without paying a fee, video and photo licensing fees can mount up. By the next version, said Dayan, the company will be licensing its technology to partners, who will embed the app on their mobile sites and use the content they already own or license to create Wibbitz-powered video stories.

Founded in 2011, Wibbitz has raised $2.3 million from investors including Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures (which invested in Facebook, Spotify, and Waze), Lool Ventures, Initial Capital, and Kima Ventures. Prior to launching the new app, Wibbitz offered content-to-video solutions for publishers, enjoying over 50,000 sites with over 17 million unique video views per month.

The news summary business is very hot right now, ever since Yahoo bought out British app Summly, which supplies text summaries of news stories designed for iPhone screens, for $30 million. But Summly doesn’t do voice — so it’s likely that Wibbitz will become a very popular app. “By automatically converting articles to videos specifically optimized for mobile devices, the Wibbitz app makes it easy and fun to finally enjoy the content again, rather than fiddle with it to make it fit to the screen,” said Dayan. “I think people are going to like this.”

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