Born as a way to read online content to the blind, Linguoo could revolutionize the Internet

29/07/2016

When Emanuel Vilte set his mind to helping his mother engage with the Internet, he never imagined –or perhaps he did– where his idea would lead him. His mother was suffering from a disease that was affecting her vision, so he searched for a way to help her keep in contact with the digital world that didn’t involve the robotic voices typically used by computers.

That planted the first seed for Linguoo, an application that allows people to listen to thousands of online articles narrated by a global community. A bit like reading the Internet through one’s ears.

This application was born in Cordoba (Argentina) and quickly spread to 90 countries in different languages, received international awards (Unesco, MIT, Google, and FRIDA, among others). In the words of Vilte, it was precisely the FRIDA Award they received two years ago which allowed them to move to the next level, as it helped them capture the attention of the international community in a new way.

What is Lingoo and how was the idea born?

Linguoo is a platform for listening to online articles narrated by a global community. The project was born when my mother began losing her vision due to degenerative maculopathy. It was then that, together with a group of developers, we started looking for apps that would allow her to listen to the Internet. What we found was that every app was using text-to-speech, a technology that converts text to robotic voices. However, it turned out that hearing these robotic voices every single day was not a pleasant experience. One day, as I was walking around the city of Cordoba, I found a group of people at a bookstore who recorded books for the blind. That was the seed for the project. That’s when we came up with the idea that perhaps we could create a global community of readers who would narrate the Web for people with visual disabilities. And that’s exactly what we did. Then our number of users began to grow. Despite encountering countless obstacles along the way, we continued to move forward. Today we have more than 30 thousand registered users on our platform and listeners in 90 different countries. We started out with four narrators from Córdoba (Argentina) and have grown to almost 160 from countries such as Mexico, the United States, Denmark, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Saudi Arabia, and more. We have articles in English and Spanish and we are hoping to add Chinese shortly, as we want to create a platform where users  can listen to articles in the world’s most popular languages.

How does Linguoo work?

Our community of readers records articles from anywhere in the world, using different means based on alliances we create. Articles are recorded in mp3 format and uploaded to our platform. These recordings are then categorized and made available for listeners to hear them on their smartphones, either online or after downloading them to their personal devices. Finally, an algorithm determines recommendations based on each user’s experiences.

What has been Lingoo’s impact so far? Is it a paid app?

We currently have more than 8,500 articles and 30,000 listeners in 92 different countries. The app is still free for everyone to use, but in the coming months we will be implementing a Premium model similar to Spotify that will allow us to continue to grow, improve the quality of our audio recordings, and continue to permanently enhance the platform. Two months ago we received an award from UNESCO; last year we were presented with awards by MIT and Google. We also received support from Facebook, IBM, and are in the final stages of creating an alliance with T-Mobile (Deutsche Telekomm) in Europe to distribute Linguoo among its millions of users.

Why do you think that an app geared at social inclusion is so successful?

Because it provides a solution to a problem that affects a group of people who are segregated, and does so with the support of their communities. Sometimes it solves huge problems, sometimes smaller issues, but this type of project resonates with people and touches those whose relatives or friends are going through similar situations. In our case, we are helping people access web content on demand: by making them available on any smartphone, we are bringing libraries to blind people anywhere, with the help of human narration. With Linguoo, one can listen to articles from the best media outlets as well as audiobooks in both English and Spanish, while enjoying a more human experience than the one offered by text-to-speech technology. And we will soon have blind narrators as, with the help of several NGOs in Mexico, we are developing a method that will allow the blind to become Linguoo narrators.

Do narrators volunteer their time or are they hired for the task?

We have two models. Most of our narrators are volunteers, but we also provide financial support to those who help us beyond simply narrating and are part of the team that curates content, is in charge of community management or other tasks. We are like Wikipedia, in the sense that together we create a Google comprised of audio recordings and most of us are volunteers. But sometimes we need to hire services and, thanks to the support of multiple organizations, we can afford a few full time curators, narrators and readers.

In a recent interview you mentioned you admire anthropologist Amber Case, who believes that technology should be less robotic and more human. Is that the key to Linguoo’s success?

I think it is. The Calm Technology paradigm proposed by Amber Case describes what we believe to be the future of interfaces. A future where interfaces are increasingly human and people interact with other devices as if they were human beings, through voice commands, through the environment, and without the need to touch buttons or navigate screens. The future of interfaces is that of multiple intelligent, ubiquitous devices learning from users through sensors and “listening” to continuously learn about users and propose actions before the user need them. This is increasingly the case with technologies such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, Siri, and all the IAs that are being developed to conquer the next destination, people’s homes or cars.

We also adhere to the Human Computation principle coined by Luis von Ahn, founder of Duolingo, as we believe that the power of communities is greater than the power of computers, and that crowdsourcing can accomplish things that individual computers cannot. Captcha, for example, helped distinguish human users from bots, but it also allowed a global community to digitize millions of antique books that were impossible to digitized using scanners. People recognized the words presented to them in the form of images and thus helped digitize millions of books. In our case, we are working in partnership with Yandex, the Russian Google, to improve speech technologies through IAs, which learn from the different cultures, colors, tones, and voices of the people who create our platform’s content in Spanish and English. This “raw” information is processed through machine learning and powerful IAs that extract patterns and improve voice recognition and text-to-speech technologies to give them what they are currently lacking, which is emotions.

Our vision is to contribute to the improvement of inclusive technologies through a platform where people can participate and help create collaborative, intelligent, inclusive, and self-regulated information communities. Always with the goal of improving access to information. Just as Wikipedia.

What can you tell us about your experience with FRIDA?

FRIDA helped us grow enormously in Latin America. Thanks to the support of FRIDA and LACNIC, we obtained our first seed capital. Having the support of two huge Internet policy organizations led us to win awards from MIT and UNESCO.

How do you assessment your participation in the FRIDA program and IGF activities?

We believe that FRIDA and the IGF allowed us to obtain the international recognition that helped us capture the attention of the international community in a new way. FRIDA and the IGF turned out to be megaphones which amplified our message, gave us credibility, and helped us find a way to reach the world. Today we are receiving the support of other organizations, such as the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, the Federal Telecommunications Institute in Mexico, and UNESCO.  Together, we are all part of this change, the result of collaborative economies, with all and for all. Because, as (Eduardo) Galeano used to say, many little people, in little places, doing little things, can change the world. This requires empowering projects such as FRIDA that will allow us to continue moving forward without perishing in the attempt.

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