Wibbitz

Israeli startup Wibbitz has news technology that seems to tick the right boxes for the mobile and wearable computing era, which is probably a big reason the company has Li Ka-shing, one of the world’s richest men, as an investor.

For its iPhone app, launched in June, it produces short news summaries that can easily be consumed on the go – perfect for the “snacking” behavior that is on the rise when it comes to mobile news consumption. Simply put, it takes text-based news articles and translates them on the fly into a video-like experience, with a voice-over and relevant images assembled in a slideshow.

Its short-video approach to news fits right in line with all the studies that show people are increasingly using their mobile devices to watch video – and that some of the best advertising opportunities on mobile lie within video.

And, given that we’re hurtling into an age in which people will be delivered news via a small projected screen that sits just above their right eyeballs, Wibbitz’s video-audio mix seems appropriate for where the future of news consumption seems headed.

Today, Wibbitz also added the ability to convert market data into 45-second video stories. The company’s algorithms monitor large amounts of market data and then compile them into easy-to-understand visual summaries. There is potential for this technology beyond what Wibbitz’s “Market Update” feature offers, but this looks like just a first step. The founders, Zohar Dayan and Yotam Cohen, call it “Narrative Science for video.”

That ability to make sense of large messes of data could prove valuable in the long run. It becomes potentially much more valuable when Wibbitz inevitably switches on personalization features, which will tailor stories to individual consumers.

In the meantime, however, the Wibbitz user experience doesn’t match the impressiveness of the technology. It’s amazing that Wibbitz can convert text news stories to audio slideshows within the space of minutes, and that those slideshows largely make sense. (Although I did catch an error in a story about US Senate hopeful Cory Booker, who, according to Wibbitz, is friends with “Jeff Zuckerberg,” not CNN President Jeff Zucker).

But the news consumption experience is ultimately unsatisfying. While some attempt has been made to introduce human-sounding voices with varying intonation and expression, the audio still sounds as if it were produced by robots. And the pictures – Slide 1: Anthony Weiner pulling a face; Slide 2: Anthony Weiner pulling a different face – don’t always add value or necessary context. Often, the pictures are just wallpaper; they merely add color rather than show action, one of the first lessons that journalism school teaches budding TV reporters.

As it stands today, Wibbitz is like a news reader for audio-slideshow shorts. One day it will allow other publications and websites to embed its videos into their Web pages or apps. At that point, it will become clearer that Wibbitz’s real competitors are news video producers, more in line with, say, NowThisNews, than anything in the news reader space.

That comparison, however, highlights Wibbitz’s weakness. NowThisNews is a very human-driven news experience, with expensive editorial and production teams. It uses human faces and human voices and human editorial judgment. Then it distributes its short videos everywhere, still fulfilling those trending habits in mobile news consumption that I mentioned at the top of this article.

Wibbitz’s problem, then, might ultimately be that its technology is too good. It tips the scales too heavily towards automated solutions for the production of video news and neglects the all-important human touch. That might be one day turn out to be a useful piece of a larger news play that combines a human-led editorial system with a powerful production machine. But as it stands today, it’s just a disappointment.