Inspired by Iron Man, Zazu Makes Mobile App for More Intelligent Wake-Up Calls

Punit Shah used to think that there was no good reason that JARVIS, the artificial intelligence personal assistant to the Iron Man comic series protagonist Tony Stark, shouldn’t exist in real life.

It’s an idea that he brought with him to Boston’s Startup Weekend in December, an event where aspiring entrepreneurs team up for 54 hours of translating their ideas to reality. There, Shah joined forces with fellow Northeastern University students Marc Held and Aaron Gerry.

Together, the team developed a prototype for the mobile app that they call the “smartest damn alarm clock,” which wakes up its users with information that’s most helpful for getting their days started, such as weather, news headlines, upcoming appointments, and e-mails, much the same way Stark’s JARVIS delivers the superhero the details he needs for his day. (Or so the Zazu guys say—in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t actually seen the Iron Man movies.) Shah, Gerry, and Held won third place at Startup Weekend, and early this year incorporated under the name Zazu, inspired by the bird personal assistant character in Disney’s Lion King movie.

Now, they’re putting together a private beta version of the app that’s due for release in June. Initially the Zazu app will be available on phones running Google’s Android operating system, a platform the company chose because it allows you to run beta testing before hitting the marketplace for sale, but they ultimately hope to expand to other platforms such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone. The goal is to get the product to market later this summer.

Zazu’s app works by first scanning the Web for information that users designate as relevant to them, and delivers that to the users’ mobile phones. It uses third party text-to-voice technology to translate that information into the sound that wakes the users up for whenever they have set their alarm clocks. A typical user might wake up to something like; “Good morning Bob. The weather in Boston is 65 degrees, with a chance of rain,” followed by a headline and lead sentence of a news story from a source of his choosing.

“Being able to hear it audibly is a great, engaging way to get up and know what you need to do to start the day,” says Shah, who has the role of CEO at Zazu.

With this first release, Zazu is starting with more elementary features, such as weather, and headlines from a list of pre-selected RSS feeds that users can choose from. For those who don’t have a smart phone, it’s also implementing a service that calls users’ phones automatically with the same information.

With later releases of its app, Zazu looking to tap into other information such as users’ e-mail and Twitter accounts, and personal calendars, to better engage them with starting their days. It will also let them specify the RSS feeds they’d most like to be woken up to, rather than choosing off the pre-set menu. “It’s going to be able to find out everything that’s pertinent to you,” says Held, who holds the programming role at Zazu. This might sound a bit invasive, but Zazu ensured me it has users’ data security in mind. Held was recently part of the team that placed first at the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, a simulation competition in which students are challenged to successfully secure the network of a small company.

For those of you who need an alarm clock with some authority (ahem, myself), future releases of the Zazu app will enable you to program in sounds and messages that “verbally berate you into getting out of bed,” Shah says. They’re also toying with enabling the app to translate text messages from your friends into audible wake-up notifications, requiring users to answer a math question or complete a maze in order to turn the alarm off, and offering multiple voices and accents for users to select as their alarm’s narrators.

Zazu is exploring a “freemium” business model for when the app hits the market, in which users get a more basic set of features for free, such as the pre-selected set of news feeds, Shah says. The personalized RSS feeds, wake-up messages, and synchronizations with calendars and e-mail accounts would come with a paid pro version of the application.

The Zazu team is a youthful one (perhaps a bit too youthful, judging by the mock business card they slipped me at the end of the interview), so it’s fitting that the startup is renting space from Boston’s Hangout Industries, a maker of software platforms for teen-oriented social games. (Hangout is actually renting to a few other Web startups, creating much the same informal incubator environment as Cambridge’s Allurent, which I wrote about in the winter). Shah just graduated from Northeastern, and Gerry and Held are still students—though they will be working with the company full-time throughout the summer and during the roughly semester-long “co-op” period Northeastern builds into its curriculum.

Ultimately, the three envision the technology as an app that follows you everywhere as a virtual personal assistant, and hope to develop a system that can deliver the same information to users as they’re driving in their cars. Says Shah, “We’re building JARVIS but better.”

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One response to “Inspired by Iron Man, Zazu Makes Mobile App for More Intelligent Wake-Up Calls”

  1. Navin says:

    the younger, the smarter…