Oh, Winston? Read me the news, today's weather forecast, and my friend's status updates

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 12, 2013

From The News Desk

Let's go ahead and get all of the robot clichés out of the way before we begin: "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!" I, Robot. HAL 9000. Skynet. Terminator. Cortana. C3P0. R2D2. "These are not the droids you're looking for." And so on and so forth. Now we can talk about Winston, a robotic personal assistant launching today to will read you your daily news, updates from Twitter and Facebook, and tomorrow's weather.

Winston, which is backed by ENIAC Ventures and Comcast Ventures and graduated from DreamIt New York in August, is similar to Umano, another "please, sir, allow me to read you your news" app we covered in November. As I wrote from the DreamIt New York demo day:

Winston is a digital assistant that picks up where Siri left off. Siri is great for getting something done – when it works – but doesn’t tie into the aspects of life that users actually enjoy. Winston connects to users’ social networks and select news feeds to create morning “Briefings”, snippets of news that the app reads to the user while they go about their business.
The service takes "takes “lean-forward content and create a lean-back experience,” as CEO Aaron Ting told me in August. Users are able to select a number of "Channels" to listen to, with options such as Technology, Business, Sports, Politics, and publisher-specific channels, including those for the Guardian, The Verge, and ESPN. Channels start playing immediately after they're tapped, with Winston making its way through stories fairly quickly, depending on how you quickly you've set "him" to speak.

As with any service that requires careful listening, Winston's usage depends on the quality of its "voice." He definitely speaks more clearly when set to "normal" speed -- selecting "fast" caused words to be jumbled and made a noticeable difference in overall quality. Winston doesn't sound as good as, say, the Google Now voice, but he sounds about as good as Siri.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the service is the "Briefing," which reads the current time, the day's weather forecast, and top news from users' channels. If the Briefing is launched at night -- as it was while I was writing this post -- it will read the next day's weather, a nice touch that makes Winston feel less like a one-trick robot and more prescient than one might expect.

I tried to compare Winston to Umano, another app that reads the news aloud, but I couldn't get Umano to actually "play" an article. Everything about Winston seems to respond faster than Umano -- the app asks "How can I help you today" on launch, launches and reads articles quickly (though the fact that it played articles at all meant that it beat Umano by default), and grabs weather data without so much as a hiccup.  Winston's interface isn't as appealing as Umano's, but in the end that doesn't make much of a difference. The whole point of using one of these services is so you don't have to look at your phone.

Anyone looking for an app that will read the news, their friends' status updates, or provide contextual information, like the weather, will find Winston capable enough. The voice isn't my favorite (that "honor" belongs to Google Now, which is the most human-like voice I've come across) and sometimes Winston's ever-present "How can I help you" becomes more annoying than an obnoxious blue fairy squeaking "Hey, listen!" every two feet, but those are small complaints that may not bother other users.

[Image Source: Media Musings]