Amazon’s Alexa Opens New Path for Earplay’s Interactive Audio Stories

Xconomy Boston — 

The woman has been anxious since the moment she sat down at my table in the restaurant.

I’ve never seen her before in my life, but she just handed me a small vial of some unknown, green liquid. It’s slightly warm to the touch.

“She begins to move away, and you figure you’ve only got time for one question,” says the voice of the narrator coming through my Amazon Echo Dot’s speakers. “Do you ask, ‘What is this?’ ‘Who are you?’ Or, ‘Why me?’”

Sitting on my couch, back in the real world, I pause for a second. I decide I wish to learn more about the mysterious woman.

“Who are you?” I say, triggering the response that matches that path in the story.

“Who am I?” comes the woman’s voice from the Echo Dot. “I’m no one. I’m you, an hour from now. I’m sorry.”

“Hey you!” shouts a man.

“You turn to see a large policeman at the entrance,” the narrator says. “The woman jumps up from the table.”

“Stay right where you are!” the policeman commands.

“Your drink tumbles into your lap,” the narrator says. “She sprints toward the kitchen, the policeman hot on her heels. She pulls the gun from her handbag and shoots him in the stomach.” From the Echo Dot, there’s the sound of a gunshot, then a grunt of pain.

“He crumples to the floor,” the narrator continues. “And now the question for you is, are you interested in what happens next?”

That’s how Earplay concludes the demo of its “interactive audio stories,” which are a cross between radio dramas of the early 20th century, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and new voice recognition technologies. The Boston-based startup creates audio narratives—performed by voice actors and augmented by sound effects and music—that consumers can listen to via a mobile app or Amazon’s Alexa-enabled speaker devices.

The twist is the listener is also an active participant—a character in the story. At each turn, the narrator offers the user choices for what he or she can do next. The user responds with voice commands to steer the story.

The four-year-old company, originally known as Reactive Studios, started out by delivering its stories via mobile app. When showcasing the product at video game conferences, testers would pop on headphones and try it out. It usually elicited a smile as the user’s imagination took off and he or she felt the thrill of directing the narrative with their voice, Earplay co-founder and CEO Jon Myers says.

“We knew we were onto something,” Myers (pictured above) says. “But back then it seemed really niche. It seemed like a big bet.”

Then came the Amazon Echo and its sister devices powered by Alexa, the virtual assistant that is Amazon’s answer to Apple’s Siri. Earplay is still a small company with a lot to prove, but Myers says Amazon’s popular voice-controlled devices have quickly opened up a bigger opportunity for his startup.

“Alexa just sort of changed everything,” Myers says. “Suddenly here’s this platform that just naturally uses our content. It’s just the right distribution platform.”

And it could be easier for Earplay to stand out among the library of available Alexa “skills”—Amazon’s term for software tools built for Alexa devices—as compared to apps. The number of skills is rapidly growing, but it’s still in the thousands. Contrast that with the millions of mobile apps available for download.

Jumping into a young industry is “a huge advantage when it comes to user acquisition and discovery,” Myers says. But new sectors are also unpredictable, which could mean “hurdles and setbacks,” he adds.

Right now, the emerging sector of apps for voice-powered devices is “total white space,” says Dave Balter, founder and CEO of Boston startup Mylestone, which recently unveiled an Alexa skill. “It gives us a lot of power in how we build the product,” he adds.

If the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and competing devices are going to truly impact people’s lives, they probably need to do more than make it easier to order a pizza or play music. That’s why it’s in the interests of Amazon, Google, and their competitors for outside companies to come up with creative ways to utilize the technology—see Apple’s playbook with the app store.

Mylestone’s idea was to create short audio narratives about personal memories, based on user-submitted photos, video, and audio files, and social media data. Alexa device owners can call up the memories on command.

“The folks at Amazon aren’t going to want to build their own memorialization platform,” Balter says. “But they’re certainly going to want people to use their device in a way that has meaning to them.”

Myers has grand ambitions. He thinks Earplay’s “interactive audio experiences” could become “a powerful new medium of artistic expression.”

“We can be the next big step in the future of storytelling,” Myers says.

Balter likes Earplay’s chances, though he’s not involved with the startup. He cites the company’s experience building these audio tools—before the Amazon Echo or Google Home hit the market—and its strategy of enabling other companies to contribute content for distribution on Earplay’s platform. (More on that in a minute.)

“Earplay is probably one of the most well-versed voice-first companies on the planet,” Balter says. “My guess is in the future, anyone who has one of these devices will eventually be listening to stories produced or offered by Earplay.”

That’s still very speculative, but the timing might work out for Earplay. Podcasts, Internet radio, and audio books are hugely popular, Myers notes. And audio books are becoming more sophisticated and engaging, with higher-quality productions that increasingly feature a full cast of voice actors and more music and sound effects.

“It shows there’s an audience out there that really wants to experience stories and use their imagination,” Myers says.

His company isn’t the only one trying to make those experiences more interactive. Eko, formerly known as Interlude, is developing interactive music videos, films, TV shows, and games that let users make choices to direct the content. And, of course, a lot of businesses and investors are betting that virtual reality could be the next frontier in entertainment.

To Myers, the appeal of Earplay and related technologies is simple. “People love stories. It’s just a new medium and a new way of experiencing stories.”

Myers is a former playwright who got a master of fine arts degree from Boston University in creative writing, playwriting, and screenwriting. That eventually led him to the video game industry. He wrote content for games—designing narratives, writing dialogue, and more—made by Zynga, Owlchemy Labs, Disruptor Beam, and others. The idea was to “try to put narrative in spaces and games” where people previously didn’t think it belonged, such as Facebook and mobile games, he says.

In Myers’s experience, players’ emotional connections to games are tied most strongly to high-quality writing, voice acting, and sound design.

“I don’t mean to discount visuals at all,” he says. “But there’s sort of the Michael Bay experience, and there’s sort of the deeper emotional experience.” In building a company around audio and speech recognition, “I thought what we’re really doing is taking the most emotionally powerful components of games and putting them all together by themselves.”

Myers started the company with Bruno Batarelo, the company’s chief technology officer, and Matthew Albrecht, who remains a shareholder and advisor, Myers says. The startup hired Dave Grossman as chief creative officer in 2014. Grossman previously designed video games for LucasArts and Telltale Games, where he led the narrative team behind games based on “The Walking Dead” and “Back to the Future,” among others. In 2015, Earplay participated in the MassChallenge startup accelerator in Boston.

The startup has been mostly self-funded, outside of a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $14,000 for its first product and $26,250 in convertible notes raised in 2013, Myers says. Earplay is in the midst of raising more money from investors, but Myers declined to share details.

Earplay creates most of its interactive stories in-house, with the help of contractors who are actors, writers, sound designers, music composers, and more. But the company also works with partners to produce content. Ultimately, if these types of products become a hit, Myers aims to position Earplay as a technology platform for interactive audio stories made by other companies and creative teams.

“We are producing most of the early content for now, while also working with partners to better understand the specific audience demand and the commercial value of this form of storytelling on emerging platforms,” Myers says. “In the long term, though, we hope to be a conduit for this type of Earplay story content rather than a generator of it.”

And although Alexa devices could help boost Earplay’s prospects, over time Myers says he wants to “grow an audience that enjoys playing all genre of audio stories with their voice, regardless of platform, delivery channel, or hardware.” (Earplay intends to make its content available on Google Home devices soon, Myers says.)

“I believe the businesses that succeed long-term in the voice ecosystem will be those that consider their product a live service that is ready to grow and adapt to their audience,” Myers says.