Amazon’s voice-enabled smart speakers can order a pizza, play your favorite song on command, set timers, and do plenty of other ordinary tasks. Now, Boston startup Mylestone aims to help make Alexa your personal memory bank.
The company has created a new “skill” for Alexa—that’s Amazon’s term for the growing library of software tools built for Alexa devices (pictured above), such as the Echo—that can call up memories of special moments and loved ones, living or dead. Mylestone uses a combination of artificial intelligence software and human workers to create “compelling narratives” based on user-submitted photos, videos, or audio files, and social media data.
It’s a new direction for Mylestone, which is led by serial entrepreneur and investor Dave Balter. And today the company announced it has raised $2.5 million in new funding to see where the idea leads.
“My personal belief is people have a need to know that their full memories—not a picture is worth a thousand words, but the thousand words [themselves]—are available somewhere,” Balter says. And making the “actual memories” accessible on command—“that’s magical,” he says.
The new funding round was led by True Ventures, with contributions from earlier backers Founder Collective, Boston Seed Capital (where Balter is a venture partner), Converge Venture Partners, and MergeLane. Mylestone has now raised $4.5 million total from investors.
Balter incorporated the company in January 2016 as Mylestoned, but it has since dropped the “d” from its name. (More on that in a minute.)
Balter has been obsessed with death for months, and he started the company to try and change the way we memorialize the dearly departed, using technology to enrich the experience. The company is part of a growing group of startups working on new business approaches to death in the digital age—call it “deathtech.”
The original version of Mylestone’s product involved assembling online collections of short tributes to the deceased. The company intended to allow people to upload photos, videos, audio, and other features to augment the homages, and enable the recollection of memories based on triggers like dates, events, and visiting certain locations.
“In the last year, we spent a long time asking people to give us stories,” Balter says. “But when you push them on that, they find it complex and difficult. The big ‘aha’ for us was, well, what if we gave them the stories?”
Balter says the new approach is “less a pivot, and more like a big leap.”
“Our theme has not changed,” he continues. “We believe there’s a better way to memorialize” people.
What’s more, rather than focusing solely on remembering those who have passed on, Mylestone is now offering the living a chance to store memories, whether it’s moments from their wedding, conversations with their children, or fun moments in the office. Or perhaps capturing grandma’s thoughts to preserve them for when she’s gone. Ultimately, it’s about storing moments and pieces of ourselves, both for our enjoyment and for the benefit of family, friends, and descendants, Balter says.
“Memorializing the deceased and memorializing the living have really merged,” Balter says. “It’s all part of preservation of self, maybe because we won’t be here forever.”
Mylestoned dropped the “d” from its name in part because of that additional focus on the living—it no longer wanted to emphasize the past tense, Balter says. The other reason is the name Mylestoned created confusion for some people who wondered if it had something to do with marijuana. It “became too much of a habit of people asking us what it meant,” he adds.
Now, armed with a new product and what it hopes is a clearer name, Mylestone will see if it can build a loyal following. I tried out Mylestone’s new offering, and found it to be interesting—and slightly creepy.
I submitted three photos from my birthday celebration earlier this month: dessert at Boston restaurant Barcelona Wine Bar, and packages of goodies mailed to me by my aunt and my best friend.
From those photos, Mylestone generated three short stories, each inflected with a bit of charm and humor. I listened to the “memories” at home on my Amazon Echo Dot device. Here’s what Alexa read to me:
—“Nothing says acknowledging another birthday in Boston by celebrating it within the warm confines of Barcelona. From the moment we walked in, it felt like we had died and gone into tapas heaven. And whatever you do, do not forget that delicious lava cake for the birthday boy. As they say in the real Barcelona, feliz cumpleaños.”
—“It was easy for Jeff to feel heartbroken on the first Valentine’s Day he spent so far away from Wisconsin, until a care pack loaded with Midwestern love came in the mail. Sometimes the Bay State and the Badger State couldn’t feel further apart. But microwaveable mac ‘n cheese, sour cream Pringles, and buttery PB crackers sure help make New England taste like home.” (For the record, this care package from my aunt was a dual gift for my birthday and Valentine’s Day with my girlfriend.)
—“It’s OK to be a little bit unhealthy on your birthday. And for the one Jeff spent a thousand miles away from home, it was definitely OK to be a little bit unhealthy. Good thing, too, since the year’s best gifts were all those mouthwatering snacks. Mom always said it’s important to have color all over your plate. But I don’t think golden plantain chips and pink cans of Hefeweizen were the sort of colors she had in mind.”
Most of those details could be easily gleaned from the photos. (A Barcelona menu was visible in the photo of lava cake, so that’s how Mylestone figured out where that was taken.) I’m not sure how Mylestone knew I used to live in Wisconsin, but perhaps that was gathered from past articles I’ve written or publicly available information on LinkedIn and other social media.
It might be fun to have family and friends listen to my Mylestone memories, as a different way of sharing those experiences with them. And I can imagine myself calling up the stories a year or two from now to reminisce, perhaps while also looking back at the photos.
Future versions of Mylestone’s product will incorporate more types of media in the experience of the memory, Balter says. That’s something I think Mylestone—to its detriment—lost in switching from an online collection of text, photos, videos, and so on, to a product that (in its current form anyway) is just a robotic female voice talking to you.
One thing that might help is the ability to record audio of loved ones and make it available for Alexa devices to play on command. That would mean families could, say, record grandpa reading a bedtime story or grandma saying the prayer recited before each Thanksgiving meal. Then those recordings could be preserved for future generations. Balter says Mylestone plans to add that capability in the future.
“The line we do want to draw is the line between creepy and valuable,” Balter says. “I don’t want to recreate my deceased loved one. I want to have the memories that make me think of them available for my children and my children’s children.”
For the current version of the product, Balter declined to say which tasks are handled by the A.I. software and which are handled by members of the company’s nine-person staff. The basic idea is Mylestone filters the “assets”—mainly photos for now, but eventually written text and other media—through a series of deep learning algorithms “to help augment the process of narration,” says Jim Myers, head of engineering.
Mylestone could potentially set up the system so that the A.I. software does all of the work. But Balter says Mylestone’s service will likely always incorporate humans in the process, even as the technology advances.
“Some of the magic comes from that light touch that a human can give to it,” he says. “Humans are always going to be valuable.”
Mylestone also adds to the Boston area’s growing cluster of companies developing products for Alexa and other voice-controlled virtual personal assistants. Others include Earplay, Orbita, Mobiquity, and Rocket Insights. Then there’s Amazon itself—its local office has performed a lot of the work on speech recognition and other tech for the company’s Alexa-enabled devices.
All of these companies are betting that the future of technology is devices controlled by our voices. That shift is starting to happen: there were 1.7 million voice-controlled devices shipped in 2015, and 6.5 million were shipped last year, according to a report from VoiceLabs. The firm predicts 24.5 million will ship this year. Amazon is the early leader in the sector, but Google released a competing smart speaker product last fall, and more tech companies will likely follow.
Mylestone is still figuring out its business model, and Balter doesn’t want to share many details yet. But one possibility is charging a fee to have its product automatically generate narratives for users on a monthly basis, he says. The product might also be attractive to companies with “large volumes of content” who want to get that content into homes and “engage with consumers more directly,” he says.
But first, just like with any app, Mylestone must try to attract a large number of users. The key, Balter thinks, is Mylestone has the potential to be a “meaningful product” that helps users connect with other people, “not just with the device.”