It's rare to meet a startup that is focused on building a business for a world which does not yet exist. But Expect Labs, which today announced a $2.4 million round of funding from Google Ventures and Greylock Partners, is doing just that. The company is creating a system that listens and understands human conversation, then suggests relevant information without being prompted. "As the price of hardware falls, we are going to be living in a world with tablets or flat screen computers on the walls in our bedrooms and kitchens," says Expect Labs founder Timothy Tuttle. "These machines are going to listen to everything you say and be able to assist you with the right song, map or recipe, without you even having to ask."
Smartphone owners are familiar by now with services like Siri that respond to voice commands and answer direct questions. "This is certainly an interesting part of where computing is headed," says Tuttle, "but its not what we're doing at all." The showcase for Expect Labs system is an app called MindMeld, which they are preparing to debut to the public this month. It's a video calling app that allows for up to eight people to carry on a conversation at one time. As the participants chat, MindMeld tries to figure out the most relevant topics and questions, then surfaces important information. "The key is that Siri and other services require you to take the lead. Our system is passive, which allows it to work in a very different way."
Before Expect Labs, Tuttle got his PhD at MIT and was a founder and CEO at Truveo, a video search engine which became one of the largest in the world before it was acquired by AOL. Beyond creating its own app, Tuttle says the company will grow through a set of APIs which will turn its "anticipatory computing" system into a platform other apps can leverage. "You could imagine this being very useful for distance learning, where a teacher is communicating with a group over students over video chat. Or perhaps in an interview setting, where someone is meeting a new candidate for a job for the first time, and having to take a lot of background information and new ideas."
I ask Tuttle if he thinks the average consumer will be a bit freaked out by the idea of a world in which computers are always listening to our conversations and guessing at our intent. "This won't be mainstream immediately, but we do think that the MindMeld app will be something a good number of consumers and businesses will be interested in today." As the world increasingly moves away from desktop computers, says Tuttle, the advantages of a system like MindMeld will become increasingly obvious. "When you have wearable computers like Google's Project Glass, or more advanced systems available in every new car, all without any obvious keyboard, this kind of passive voice technology will become increasingly relevant."