Umano wants to tell you the news, literally

By Richard Nieva , written on November 21, 2012

From The News Desk

As a Bay Area resident, I think I can speak for most when I say: BART is awful. The Bay Area Rapid Transit pales in comparison to other metropolis’ public transportation trains. It’s overly crowded at rush hour, makes a grand total of eight stops in San Francisco, and has smells baked into its seat cushions that have been there since the 1980s. The one plus: reading the news while you ride.

Doing the same thing while driving will leave you fined, maimed, or dead -- or will leave another person maimed or dead. To sidestep that loss in life or property, the company SoThree has created a news reader called Umano specifically for commuters. The company, started by three ex-Google engineers, claims 125 million people in the United States commute to work, and about 75 percent do so driving alone in a car.

So the idea is simple: an app that reads news articles to you. Not in a robotic, Siri kind of way (though some people are into that sort of thing), but in a rich, intoned human way that doesn’t mispronounce names or overemphasize syllables. The company’s editorial team scours the Web and chooses about 15 tech-related articles to be read aloud. From there, they are sorted into four categories: geeky (which is code for techy/gadget stuff), scientific, entrepreneurial, and inspirational (which might include a story on why a business should persevere.) The goal is getting quality, even if obscure, content. “We really try to find articles that you couldn’t find on Google News,” says Ian Mendiola, the company’s chief executive.

The reason the delivery sounds so human is because the readers are actual humans (in fact, "umano" means "human" in Italian) – the company has hired a team of four voice actors to record each article. SoThree has also developed software that makes it easier for the voice actors to record stories from anywhere and on any device, including an iPhone, and remove imperfections like white noise. (The company also inadvertently learned a few things about the voice acting industry. Hungry voice actors, who never get any opportunities for consistent work, sent the team 50 demoes a day, Mendiola said.)

What’s next is expansion, and giving users more total control. “Any time you’re listening to music during the day, we want to be able to let you listen to news,” says Mendiola. Over the next six months to a year, he would like to have 100 articles a day, which means expanding the voice talent team to about 15 readers. He’d also like to explore partnerships with the publications themselves, and have an area on their homepages where readers can access past Umanofied stories and request future ones.

The company seems well poised, and the idea is certainly useful, especially if you want news that isn't in podcast form. There is also an opportunity for them in the accessibility market, catering to the blind. But one minor thing they should consider is a better way to get users involved; perhaps by letting them request coverage areas as opposed to stories. (Requesting a story means having to read it first, defeating the purpose of having a story read to you on your commute.)

Another area they need to look at is getting the product to a point where it is completely hands-free. Now, to rewind, a user needs to scrub back, like on a music player. Indeed, Mendiola said the team is working on voice controls next.

But what should really be next? If they’ll take my humble advice: celebrity readers, of course. I think Louis CK reading news of Google’s quarterly results would be a big hit. But that’s just me.