TLDR: we had an idea ahead of its time, so we built it, ran into some problems which we couldn't fix, and then google went and did it anyway by cheating, but we're proud of what we made, and our kids love it.

On Google Home: "ask hearhear for a story"

nb. you'll need a copy of "The Dinosaur that pooped a planet" or "What the ladybird heard"

the concept

In early 2018, we developed a concept for a storytelling voice skill.

Imagine if, whilst reading to your kids, sounds filled the room to bring the book to life - the wind through the forest, the bleeps of a space rocket, the magic of a wizard, the roar of a monster, the moo of a cow.

We loved the idea so much, and everyone who we shared it with said "Oh my, that's lovely!" - so we wanted to see whether it was possible using the existing technology available through Google Assistant or Alexa.

As a collaboration - with Matthew developing the idea and hacking the code, and Mat writing the audio and making sure the whole project moved forward, and both of us designing the business idea and value proposition - we rapidly built the first prototype, built around Julia Donaldson's wonderful book "What the ladybird heard", and then later we added "The Dinosaur that Pooped a Planet" by by Dougie Poynter and Tom Fletcher - both chosen because of their scope for fun with sound.

the tech

Based upon simple existing platforms, the core prototype was built in a matter of days, where you could ask for a book, start reading along, and the soundscapes would play as you read. We tested the app with a couple of excited children - and the verdict was in:


There were, however, some frustrations we came up against.

The device can't listen and play at the same time, so we needed to build around the natural pauses that occur when reading to wait, listen, pick up where they are in the book, and play the next sound.

The response time between hearing something, waiting for the person to stop talking, fetching the logic from the cloud, and then returning the audio, was generally too long.

There were some issues around the 'patterns' within children books, there's lots of repetition for good reason, but it sometimes confused the app, so we had to design around that too.

We reached a point with the prototype where our skills couldn't push it any further - so enlisted the help of a dedicated technology team, who tightened up the underlying application, its response times, but we simply couldn't get around the listen/play issue.

the business

We also built out the business model prototype - a Netflix type model, where a monthly subscription to the platform would give you access to all books for a flat fee, new books added monthly, one free book gifted every month for people to try before they buy.

The important angle here was that it revitalised existing books, that you already have on your shelf. You didn't need to buy anything new. You just pick up a book that you love, and start reading.

This is great for consumers, but even better for publishers - a way to generate incremental and post-purchase revenue for sales that have already happened. With Amazon squeezing margins on publisher prices, this could be a way to recoup lost revenue, but also to build relationships directly with readers - something which is rare in publishing, as consumers are most often behind a retailer. The financial model we built would share both revenue and insight data with the publisher for every title of theirs listened to on the platform.

the end

Then, as we were almost about to give up, Google announced a partnership with Disney, with a storytelling app based upon a number of their books - the app worked by listening and playing at the same time, something Google were able to unlock for their own project, but wasn't publicly possible (probably for security reasons and with good reason!)

The only way the app was going to work well, and Google had clearly recognised this too, was to allow listen/play at the same time. So we put a halt on things until the technology catches up.

our recommendation

Voice is not a shiny new technology, but opens up a whole new set of interaction opportunities for people and brands. We believe there's a huge wealth of ideas which don't just fall into the 'recipe app' pattern of skills, but by thinking laterally, voice can create magical immersive experiences.

Oftentimes, exploring new ideas can be held up by the limitations of technology - but as the Google project shows, by investing in exploration and prototyping early, you'll be ready to go as soon as the technology catches up with your idea.

Don't stop experimenting, work with partners who can rapidly help you prototype your idea, see where the gaps are, and just get turn your ideas into reality to get real reactions from real people.


If you're interested in strategic exploration and rapid prototyping - BYO/Foxlark can help you de-risk your innovation programmes. We've done this for big and small brands, and we'd love to work with you too.

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