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Adding tech twist to storytelling, entrepreneurs try to bridge generation gap

Israeli startup Zoog’s software allows family members to read and record stories for kids, while becoming part of the tale with AR and filters

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustration of the Zoog app in action (Courtesy)
An illustration of the Zoog app in action (Courtesy)

As the coronavirus pandemic raged, social distancing and lockdowns kept many grandparents away from their grandkids, leaving phone calls or video chats as the only way to keep in touch — but it wasn’t very satisfactory.

When grandparents called, children were often otherwise engaged or uninterested in talking, and when they did talk, they limited themselves largely to “yes/no” answers without significant content. “It didn’t create experiences,” said Yoav Oren, the co-founder of Zoog, who has three children ranging from 1.5 to 7.5 years old. “Just a lot of frustration.”

That was when Oren and his co-founder Matan Guttman, both 38, realized there was an opportunity to bridge the gap by applying technology to that age-old beloved shared activity, reading a story aloud.

“Reading books is a framework for expression,” he said. “It is a great way to connect.”

So, Oren and Guttman set out to develop a way to create personalized video books.

The company takes existing stories or makes up its own, and transforms them into personalized and portable storybooks. The readers become part of the story with augmented reality masks, filters, sound effects and animation, through the use of machine learning and animation-creation technology.

An illustration of the Zoog app in action (Courtesy)

Users of the Zoog app choose from among the available stories, then read and record it, looking into their phone’s camera. Text scrolls across the screen, and the app indicates when to smile or make a sad face while reading. It also decides what filters, masks, and accessories to apply to the reader.

“We fit the masks automatically,” said Oren. “In the future we will offer our users the ability to select their masks. For now, we are focused on making it a super easy experience.”

Once done recording, the reader can share the story by sending a link. Recipients don’t need to have downloaded the app, and comments or react with emojis. The firm will shortly be releasing the possibility of video responses as well.

This reporter tried out the app, first reading a story called A Day of Pride, by Roy Youldous-Raiss, about a pride parade and the love there is in equality. As I recorded it, I was adorned with a heart-shaped headband and my cheeks were colored pink, while rainbow flags and pink hearts moved around on the screen.

The second story I read was a reworked Red Riding Hood, by Devora Busheri. There I was tricked out with wolf ears and a snout as I read about the adventures of Grandpa Wolf and Wolfie while they walked to school. Then I sent both videos to my two children, ages 24 and 20, who probably thought their mother had gone crazy. It was really good fun to read the stories — just like old times, using different voices, but this time with a little tech twist.

Yoav Oren, right, and Matan Guttman, co-founders of Zoog (Courtesy)

“At the moment the app offers five full stories that are made up of 3-5 chapters each,” said Oren. “Each chapter is a standalone, and we release on average two chapters per week. We are now working on three new books.”

The firm is planning to release classics like Humpty Dumpty and Cinderella within a few weeks, said Oren.

The Tel Aviv-based firm has signed an agreement with Israel’s Koren Publishers, though it hasn’t produced any books from Koren’s library yet. “We’re working on a few partnerships with a few major publishers (part of the big five), but until they are finalized, I can’t, unfortunately, publicize this information,” said Oren.

The recorded story stays in the archives forever, and is a wonderful memory for the children or grandchildren, said Oren.

The company has raised to date $600,000 from Joy Ventures, Remagine Ventures and The Zell Early-Stage Fund.

Zoog launched last February in an event sponsored by the Atlanta Public school system in the US and hosted by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. More recently, Zoog won first prize in the Tamid Startup Pitch Night and was selected for AIPAC’s Sharkup Nation event.

Caribu is a US competitor offering a similar product, said Oren, but the app is not interactive like Zoog’s, and offers users the more simple activities of drawing together and reading books in PDF-like formats.

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