Amazon’s Alexa Opens New Path for Earplay’s Interactive Audio Stories

Xconomy Boston — 

The woman has been anxious since the moment she sat down at my table in the restaurant.

I’ve never seen her before in my life, but she just handed me a small vial of some unknown, green liquid. It’s slightly warm to the touch.

“She begins to move away, and you figure you’ve only got time for one question,” says the voice of the narrator coming through my Amazon Echo Dot’s speakers. “Do you ask, ‘What is this?’ ‘Who are you?’ Or, ‘Why me?’”

Sitting on my couch, back in the real world, I pause for a second. I decide I wish to learn more about the mysterious woman.

“Who are you?” I say, triggering the response that matches that path in the story.

“Who am I?” comes the woman’s voice from the Echo Dot. “I’m no one. I’m you, an hour from now. I’m sorry.”

“Hey you!” shouts a man.

“You turn to see a large policeman at the entrance,” the narrator says. “The woman jumps up from the table.”

“Stay right where you are!” the policeman commands.

“Your drink tumbles into your lap,” the narrator says. “She sprints toward the kitchen, the policeman hot on her heels. She pulls the gun from her handbag and shoots him in the stomach.” From the Echo Dot, there’s the sound of a gunshot, then a grunt of pain.

“He crumples to the floor,” the narrator continues. “And now the question for you is, are you interested in what happens next?”

That’s how Earplay concludes the demo of its “interactive audio stories,” which are a cross between radio dramas of the early 20th century, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and new voice recognition technologies. The Boston-based startup creates audio narratives—performed by voice actors and augmented by sound effects and music—that consumers can listen to via a mobile app or Amazon’s Alexa-enabled speaker devices.

The twist is the listener is also an active participant—a character in the story. At each turn, the narrator offers the user choices for what he or she can do next. The user responds with voice commands to steer the story.

The four-year-old company, originally known as Reactive Studios, started out by delivering its stories via mobile app. When showcasing the product at video game conferences, testers would pop on headphones and try it out. It usually elicited a smile as the user’s imagination took off and he or she felt the thrill of directing the narrative with their voice, Earplay co-founder and CEO Jon Myers says.

“We knew we were onto something,” Myers (pictured above) says. “But back then it seemed really niche. It seemed like a big bet.”

Then came the Amazon Echo and its sister devices powered by Alexa, the virtual assistant that is Amazon’s answer to Apple’s Siri. Earplay is still a small company with a lot to prove, but Myers says Amazon’s popular voice-controlled devices have quickly opened up a bigger opportunity for his startup.

“Alexa just sort of changed everything,” Myers says. “Suddenly here’s this platform that just naturally uses our content. It’s just the right distribution platform.”

And it could be easier for Earplay to stand out among the library of available Alexa “skills”—Amazon’s term for software tools built for Alexa devices—as compared to apps. The number of skills is rapidly growing, but it’s still in the thousands. Contrast that with the millions of mobile apps available for download.

Jumping into a young industry is “a huge advantage when it comes to user acquisition and discovery,” Myers says. But new sectors are also unpredictable, which could mean “hurdles and setbacks,” he adds.

Right now, the emerging sector of apps for voice-powered devices is “total white space,” says Dave Balter, founder and CEO of Boston startup Mylestone, which recently unveiled an Alexa skill. “It gives us a lot of power in how we build the product,” he adds.

If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and competing devices are going to truly impact people’s lives, they probably need to do more than make it easier to order a pizza or play music. That’s why it’s in the interests of Amazon, Google, and their competitors for outside companies to come up with creative ways to utilize the technology—see Apple’s playbook with the app store.

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