From the Lab that Brought You Siri, It’s Trapit—A Personalized Discovery Engine

10/21/11Follow @wroush

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it was slow—it worked all night just to identify a few articles matched to users’ interests. To be credible, a consumer-scale system would need to scour the whole Web, and it would need to process information in near-real time, ingesting newly published articles and matching them against users’ personal profiles in just seconds.

That was the goal that Notthaft and Griffiths—Notthaft’s old mentor from WebEx and LiteScape—set for themselves once they got SRI’s blessing to spin out the technology. Luckily, they had help from David Schairer, the former chief technology officer at Concentric, who became Trapit’s third co-founder. With both theoretical expertise in adaptive learning and natural language processing and practical experience building high-volume spam filters for Internet service providers, Schairer is a nearly unique commodity in Silicon Valley, Griffiths says. Even so, making the news assistant faster and scaling it up to monitor more sources (some 50,000 now) took more than a year. “It was a lot of work,” Griffiths says.

And the truth is that there’s more work to do. Trapit probably needs to learn even faster than it does, and do better at guessing users’ intentions when it doesn’t get direct feedback. When I created a trap for “Hitchcock,” one of my favorite directors, it took me forever to teach it that I meant Alfred Hitchcock, not Hitchcock, TX (a suburb of Galveston), not the singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, and not the Arizona TV anchorwoman Tara Hitchcock. (I confess that I deliberately didn’t call the trap “Alfred Hitchock” from the start, because I wanted to see how long it would take to train it. But I had no idea how much non-Alfred news there would be.) When I created a trap for “vegetarian recipes,” the second item Trapit showed was a recipe for chicken with pesto and penne. I gave that one a thumbs-down, naturally, but will Trapit know it was because of the chicken? To be ready for prime time, in short, Trapit will need to work reliably even for users who aren’t as willing as early adopters like me to train it.

Notthaft says that the 16-employee company, which has an office in Portland, OR, as well as Palo Alto, is working on a series of feature enhancements that will show up on the site this fall. The service is free, but Nothhaft and Griffiths envision selling annual subscriptions to traps that include content that’s normally behind a paywall (e.g., the Wall Street Journal), or creating “sponsored traps”—imagine golf club maker Ping sponsoring a featured trap on the U.S. Open, for example.

Trapit, which recently raised $5.6 million in venture capital from a group including Horizons Ventures (which also invested in Siri), hasn’t said whether it’s working on native smartphone or tablet versions of its service. But that would be a natural direction to go. I do most of my own news browsing these days on my iPad rather than the desktop Web, and some of Trapit’s features don’t work well in a mobile browser. For me, a best-of-both-worlds news app would be something that’s as pretty and as user-friendly as Flipboard, but with the filtering smarts of Trapit underneath the hood. In fact, I won’t be surprised if Trapit gets scooped up quickly, just as Siri was, by a larger company with an interest in content curation—say, Flipboard, Google, Facebook, or even Apple.

Indeed, the bidding may already have begun. Nothhaft says the publicity around Siri has begun to rub off on Trapit, resulting in “increased visibility and opportunities” for the startup. “Just as Siri is revolutionizing the human-computer interaction on the mobile device, Trapit will revolutionize web search as we know it today,” he asserts. A bold claim—but one with some history to back it up.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Wade…I love this line you wrote: “But what if your friends don’t share all of your interests, or aren’t very good at ferreting out the kinds of obscure news tidbits that might make your day, or are just dull people?” As you observe, news discovery is still not much advanced from the state of Amazon recommendations. A good start but blunt.

    Trapit sounds interesting. IF they can make their UX as fluid as Pinterest, and combine the easy teachability of Pandora, I’ll be a user. I’m not as patient as you to hack through new services. It’s great you do it for the rest of us!

  • http://www.davidparry.com David Parry

    I am wondering why is this old technology so interesting is it because Apple is just catching up? It sounds to me that the only reason why everyone thinks Apple is so revolutionary is because the media disregards are pays little attention until Apple does it. I have been using Android with voice on my phone for quite sometime with no problems and it does all of that and more since it now can control other devices so yes it can turn on the waffle maker.

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  • http://apps.evri.com Will Hunsinger

    Wade,
    Nice piece on Trap.it – i have been following these guys since private beta as much of what they are doing mimics what we launched on Evri.com back in 2009 like surfacing trending stories and topics from tens of thousands of sources, allowing users to follow the topics they love, bringing new stories to them. At Evri, we made a conscious decision to go Tablet and Mobile b/c, as you point out, that’s where folks really lean back and discover, browse news. You should check out Evri for iPad, I would welcome your thoughts.
    -Will Hunsinger
    CEO, Evri

  • Alan Bourke

    “it has brought state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technology”

    Puh-leeze.

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  • http://larkforsure.wordpress.com larkforsure

    [ SOS ] Complaint about Human Rights Violations by IBM China on Centennial

    Please Google:

    Tragedy of Labor Rights Repression in IBM China
    or
    How Much IBM Can Get Away with is the Responsibility of the Media
    or
    IBM detained mother of ex-employee on the day of centennials

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  • Jules Pieri

    @David…I take your point but that is the idea behind building a trusted brand like Apple. You get huge unfair advantages for doing that hard spadework like Apple did…credit for translating technologies that you did not invent.

    I will say I had four Droids, I used the speech recognition feature, and was pretty fluent on the phone. But I recently switched to the iPhone because the UX of the Droid was just not as good and I was sick of bending my mind around a Droid developer’s biases rather than having a simple and intuitive approach. With Trapit I see the potential for the same “win”. I am not yet a user so I have to really try it to be definitive, but my initial impression is that they might be serving up this customized news service with a UX that complements the technology, rather than follows it. That is exactly what Apple did repeatedly.

  • http://thetechnologycafe.com Samir

    I would basically call it a mixture of Stumble Upon + Twitter plus a bit of AI
    The UI needs drastic improvements to make it more user friendly
    but great tool indeed
    http://thetechnologycafe.com/trap-itsocial-discovery-engine-aistumbleupontwitter-launches-review-pictures/#.TsItEfQUqdA

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