A little earlier we ran a story about a video that showed what appeared to be a Yahoo Siri competitor. “Sources familiar with Yahoo’s internal projects tell us that the video is fake,” we wrote. Well, it turns out that this isn’t the whole story. It’s true that Yahoo didn’t make the video itself, and it didn’t make the app, but that doesn’t mean Yahoo isn’t involved. The app was made by a natural language/speech recognition/navigation startup Robin Labs, on a commission from Yahoo.
Here’s the backstory as told to me by Ilya Eckstein, the co-founder and CEO of Robin Labs:
Robin Labs has been building a white-label platform for custom voice assistants. It’s the second stage of the startup’s development, the first of which was to develop its own eponymous personal assistant and navigation app. (That app launched last year.) Think of it as Siri for everyone and everything, not just Apple. “The idea is that brands could offer their content to their audiences, wrapped in voice-interactive UI,” Eckstein says.
It turns out that Yahoo is one such brand, and appears to have been behind the development of the white-label platform in the first place. “We’ve been in conversations with them,” he says. “Our white-label platform was commissioned by Yahoo.”
The Yahoo-branded prototype in the video, powered by the Robin platform, was created as part of those discussions with Yahoo. “Somehow, the video has leaked out after we’d sent it to Yahoo,” he says.
In fact, although Android Police published a link to the video on Dailymotion today, it’s been on at least one other video network since December 4, if you knew where to look. We had already seen it and were trying to get to the bottom of the story before Android Police published its post today.
To be honest, I had thought originally that Yahoo might be trying to buy Robin Labs. Eckstein would not comment on that. ”We are having an ongoing conversation with Yahoo,” he told me, and that has been with senior people both in engineering and corporate. “That’s as much as I can say about it.”
It’s not too left-field to wonder if Robin Labs could be another acquisition target for CEO Marissa Mayer and Yahoo: Yahoo’s been on a long-term buying spree of startups to pick up technology, talent (and sometimes users). Robin Labs fits well with other acquisitions Yahoo has made in natural language processing (SkyPhrase) and mobile assistant apps (eg, Astrid). Robin today has seen some 1 million downloads, and the company’s ambitions are high: today Robin focuses on navigation and a few other services but has ambitions to extend out to other areas as a platform for personal assistants across different verticals such as “a news concierge, a communication / scheduling assistant, and assistant in the kitchen, etc.” according to Eckstein.
Asked if Robin Labs had approached Yahoo, or if it was the other way around, Eckstein responded with a saying: “Great minds think alike.”
He’s not very happy about how the videos leaked out in the first place, it seems, but is now just trying to accept it as a bit of “unexpected market research.” If you look at some of the readers’ comments, the idea does strike a chord with people, and we are pleased to see that. That actually may be one good thing to come out of that debacle.”
We’ve reached out to Yahoo and will update this post as we learn more…