Since becoming a finalist in our BookTech Company of the Year Awards in 2016, Novel Effect has had an impressive trajectory. The Seattle-based husband-and-wife startup, which uses voice recognition technology to sync music and sound effects with children's books as they are read aloud, has been through the SXSW accelerator; secured $3 million in funding; won a Webby Award; and secured partnerships with major publishers including Hachette and Simon & Schuster.
And it's Simon & Schuster that has provided the talent behind Novel Effect new project: a customized soundscape created to accompany the upcoming picture book What Can You Do with a Toolbox? from HGTV stars John Colaneri and Anthony Carrino. This seemed the perfect opportunity to catch up with the company's founder, Matt Hammersley, and find out what his team have learnt after three years on the forefront of books and voice tech.
Explain the What Can You Do with A Toolbox? project in one sentence...
What Can You Do with a Toolbox?, written by HGTV stars John Colaneri and Anthony Carrino, takes children through an adventure to discover the world of tools and building. We were fortunate enough to meet with them at a live construction site to record real-life tool sounds as well as their voices--the end result of this project with The Cousins is an unforgettable reading experience when the book is read out loud with Novel Effect’s voice-driven soundscape.
How have you evolved the Novel Effect technology for this project?
For many of our projects, we often go outside to capture a sound here or there to fill in the background or enhance a key scene. For this project, we traveled to an actual construction site with The Cousins to ensure that the sounds of the tools were authentic to the experience and would add an auditory layer that would enhance the authors’ mission to educate kids on how to recognize, use, and have fun with tools.
What useful failures or pivots did you make along the way?
In the beginning, we were heavily focused on the construction and tool sounds and our first internal soundscape review was underwhelming. Our creative team had some great ideas on how to implement The Cousin’s actual voices into soundscape experience to really make it feel like you were learning and building side by side with them. They are such electric and we'll regarded personalities and we knew families would love to feel that personal connection to them while reading. The cherry on top was also getting Anthony’s three-year-old daughter to provide a killer line “Hey Squirrely, you have a screwdriver!”. The addition of the interactive dialogue and resulting connections to The Cousins themselves takes the experience to the next level.
What challenges have you faced in developing partnerships with traditional publishers?
We are very fortunate to be working with a large (and growing) mix of forward thinking publishers who see the value of staking a claim in a voice driven world. Even though our platform provides a model that has a proven track record of leveraging voice interfaces to strengthen print book sales, there is always a hesitation to adopt a new technology, and traditional publishers are no different. That hesitation, whether directed by budget constraints or other factors, has been the biggest hurdle in forging partnerships with traditional publishers. However, we remain confident that if we can continue to execute in building incredible voice-driven experiences that delight readers and deliver a proven ROI to authors and publishers, being on our platform will be a integral component to a book’s marketing plan.
What have you learnt so far about how and why people are using your product?
We always knew that parents would love the app – and they do! What surprised us was how many educators are using the app daily in their classrooms and libraries. Many have written us to say how using the app increases engagement of their students – and some have even commented on how it seems to increase comprehension of the storylines and emotional cues. We’ve been inspired to actually study these anecdotal reports, in coordination with Dr. Anne Cunningham at UC-Berkley and hope to have study results to share in the coming months. We always knew people would have fun with this immersive form of storytelling, but to see such a significant impact in a child’s reading ability and confidence has blow us away.
It’s been a busy year - you scooped $3 million in investment round back in May and won a Webby Award. What’s your priority focus over the next few months?
On the product side, we have two main goals over the coming months, launch on Android and release a beta of our voice-over soundscape creation studio. We are particularly excited about the studio, where publishers and other creators will be able to build voice-driven stories in a simple, easy to use interface.
On the partnership side, we have been extremely busy, and are working with world class creators and technology companies to push the frontier of voice driven experiences. We are tremendously excited about the coming months.
What other applications do you see voice technology having for the book trade?
Voice provides a unique opportunity to blend the digital and physical worlds. With the rapid adoption of voice assistants in homes, classrooms, and work all across the world, coupled with the billions of dollars being invested by the largest tech players that are propelling the capabilities and accuracy of the voice interface, the opportunities are growing. We see the biggest impact occurring in a stronger adoption of audiobooks, a new frontier for discoverability, and of course, new content formats.
What other publishing startups do you admire?
There are a lot. But, some that we particularly love are Wonderbly, Wattpad, Serial Box, and Madefire. All of which are pushing new formats, personalization, and delivering incredible experiences to readers across the world.