I have Seen the (near) Future and Thy name is Robo.to

December 10, 2009

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the masterminds (evil geniuses?) behind Robo.to, a service I failed to grasp just weeks ago. If you haven’t checked my hourly updates, well, then you are missing out on some good ol’ fashion fun.

Co-Founders Aubrey Anderson and Ericson deJesus first thought of the idea when they realized how static one’s profile picture can be through-out a person’s social media profiles. One’s profile picture could include a happy, sunny day in the park while the status viewed “Today might be my last.” Ericson put it quite simply, “We wanted to develop something that helps express a more accurate view of your mood.”

If you’ve ever visited Robo.to, you know that it’s way more than just a moving profile picture. Although both Aubrey and Ericson admitted that they saw Robo.to as “an extension to other services,” I would argue that, if strategically managed, Robo.to could become the new hub of the video web. It has all of the characteristics of a social hub: great community, interactive design, and a platform that brings together multiple social media applications into one, easy to use video card.

With respect to the community itself, Robo.to peeps are a bit introverted with other users, yet annoying extroverted with the rest of the world. I’ve tried “video responding” to a few Robo.to(s), but none seem to reciprocate. I soon realized after the interview that interaction between Robo.to users isn’t the main purpose of the site, but merely an added feature of having a stake in the Robo.to community.

When you make a video post, it’s more similar to Twitter than it is to Facebook, in that you are broadcasting it to the world.

What Aubrey and Ericson would like, as was the original purpose of Robo.to, is to see users find other friends within their own social circle and connect in a more meaningful, expressive way. The service was designed as such that it could be ported and shared, through mobile devices. In a way, Robo.to is a hostile attempt to do away with the business card. At a press conference? Need to give out that one link to the world? Why not include your Robo.to profile? If you’ve been to any tech conference lately, you’d know that many are already including their Twitter, Facebook, and at least one kid’s birth certificate on their cards.

A slightly different way for a brand to think about their brand communication

I asked the duo if they saw Robo.to as a platform for brands to interact with their customers. They were quick to point out that Robo.to is a disruptive technology, one that was developed with the intent of changing the web landscape, not turning a profit. That being said, Robo.to is going to have to figure out a way to give brands a voice on their service if they want to stay alive. I say this because, as we’ve seen with Twitter and Facebook, brand interaction separates a service from the rest of the pack. Most who use the service know that Justin Timberlake invested in the project. That being said, the rest of N-SYNC might not have the capital to keep Robo.to running forever.

It doesn’t seem like Robo.to would “do” the premium model…

I believed Ericson and Aubrey when they told me they had many options for monetizing Robo.to, I was also happy to hear that Premium accounts would be out of the question. I liked how Ericson put it the best:

“We’re in a depression and it’s hip to be like “how are you going to make money” and that’s always an issue, but great ideas don’t flow out with cash in front. You innovate, make something cool, build an audience, then plan the least obtrusive way to monetize the audience.

I have some ideas for monetization: Why not create relationships with budding social networks and build the Robo.to API right into the profile pic? $$$ Charge for the opportunity to be a part of the future, or GET SQUASHED!

Try out Robo.to today before all your friends are like:

“OMG ROBO.TO YOU HAVE TO TRY IT WHAT ARE YOU A LOOOSSSER?.”

For once in your life, you can be that dude(or ladyfriend.)

I loved talking with the Robo.to crew, so much in fact that I transcribed our interview and can be fouuunnnnnnnnddddd…below. If you don’t like words, here are some sounds (from the interview)

Peercasters: Tell me a little about robo.to?

Aubrey: Well robo.to started as a product called Smirk, whose intent was to record the smallest possible snippet of meaningful video we could capture. We tried to figure out the minimum amount of length to make something compelling. 4 seconds turned out to be the best and that is where Smirk is. Smirk was designed to attach specific videos with specific emotions. We had a concept that you would be able to swap out the canned video for specific states in a web service. That has grown into Robo.to: a video status application and, increasingly, a short form messaging application. We have incorporated many social services. When a person visits your page they, can holistically get an understanding of your website. They don’t have to read all your Twitter posts or Facebook profile.

Peercasters: When I first started using Robo.to, I wasn’t sure how it fit in with the rest of my social media regiment. How do you see Robo.to fitting in with current social Medias? Would you like to see Robo.to as a hub or an extension to other social media services?

Ericson: Definitely an extension. Just a little bit more background on what Smirk was. It started when we were using social sites. One thing that would happen quite often is that your avatar would never really be in sync with the comment you are submitting. For example, you could be messaging on a friend’s page about a sad event, but your avatar is a happy face. We wanted to develop something that helps express a more accurate view of your mood. Smirk was a product that would plug into other sites. We thought smirk could be extended onto other social media sources, such as Facebook.

Aubrey: We would like to help you super describe yourself by showing your face. In the simplest possible terms, it is hard to get a holistic view of a person on the web right now. Think of it as a /bit.ly/ for humans.

Peercasters:Well that makes a lot more sense. With Robo.to, you guys have created a very innovative product, how would you like to see this product working in the further? Have you reached out to Facebook and other media services to see if they can incorporate your product with theirs?

Ericson: We haven’t done too many partnerships yet, primarily because the product [Robo.to] is still in beta, still changing. When our work flows are a little more settled down, then that is something that we are interested in doing. We have an interest in forming a number of strategic and tactical relationships. For the most part now we are focusing on /API/s that are already exposed and bringing things together in the most effective way we can, given what sites let us do without specific partnerships. It’s pretty amazing how much you can do just using public APIs.

Aubrey: It’s not always easy to tell how old a service is by looking at it, but Robo.to is quite young. Robo.to allows you to keep one page that constantly stays fresh and accurate. Your /flickr/ photos are up to date, your avatar is up to date, your status is up to date. One thing that we are checking right now is Robo.to becoming an address book for mobile phones. That’s sort of how we approach things. We put things out there and get a feel for it, let the user react to it. From there, we chase things based on what feels right. Right now, we’re gathering feedback; we’re watching what people are doing with [Robo.to]. We’re hoping that they find different uses and misuses for it. Whatever is interesting is what we’ll change.

Peercasters:Very cool! Because I love scouring for new social media sites, one of my biggest pet peeves is having to make new “friends” with people I don’t know. How do most people interact through Robo.to? Do they go all out, making new friends, or do they bring their current social circle into Robo.to?

Aubrey: First off, I just want to point out that Robo.to isn’t really about friends, it’s about contacts. You can’t friend people on Robo.to, so much as watch them. So there are two routes: you can just troll around in the /everyone/ page and see something interesting and watch that person as a source of interesting content, sort of like a /Twitter/ or flickr workflow. The other thing is that you can find people that you already know and connect in a more meaningful way with them. Two weeks ago, we introduced the idea of putting in contact info and sharing with specific people in your crowd; according to how near or close they are to you. We think that the web in heading in a direction where you may not want to show all your social content to your mom, but you might want to show it to your girlfriend. We don’t really have a strong mechanism right now to draw those relationships. Right now, if your mom tries to friend you on Facebook, you pretty much have to say yes. Then you’re screwed, she has access to everything. We think there’s probably a better way to deal with those relationship management problems. We’re working on allowing you to create a crowd, then disseminate certain bits of information to certain people in the crowd. This would allow you to, say, reveal your email address through Robo.to to some people, but not everyone

With that in mind, would you say the social aspect of Robo.to is more Twitter-esque than Facebook-esque?

Aubrey: I would. Robo.to is more about what is going on in the world right now. So far, it’s really been about introducing the idea that people sitting out there in front of their laptops in the dark also have a face; and you can look at that, which is a disruptive enough concept so far. We’ve sort of just hung out there as we’ve made a plan for future features. When you make a video post, it’s more similar to Twitter than it is to Facebook, in that you are broadcasting it to the world.

Peercasters:Thinking from a business perspective, I have found that, unfortunately, one of the best ways for a social media site to expand is to have large companies use it as a marketing platform. It would probably be difficult for a brand to go onto Robo.to and express themselves through your service. Do you see Robo.to as scalable in that regard?

Ericson: It is a slightly different way for a brand to think about their brand communication. Robo.to tracks the concept of trending topics or tags as TV channels. You can watch all the content in say “summer hat” or all the content tagged “I’m sleepy”, or all the content tagged “new haircut”. There are some new and interesting possibilities for brands to associates themselves with trending topics or with content a little more broadly than the way people think about content now. For instance, /Coca-Cola/ might sponsor the /hash-tag/ #summer. Then we would brand the look and feel of the watching experience of all content under the #summer header and #summer would be brought to you by Coke.

Peercasters: Could you ever see coke having a Robo.to profile?

Ericson: I think that they probably would not have a profile for a big global brand like that. I’m not sure if it’s effective for Nike to have a Twitter, either. But Nike Basketball probably should have one. As a big brand gets into subdivisions, that’s where the channel for content lies. We’re trying to support as much new use and misuse as possible.

How are you planning on monetizing Robo.to?

Ericson: Well there are a ton of different monetization options. We work kind of like a video game company. Our shop works on several products concurrently. Our goal is to do something interesting and disruptive first, then circle back around and make partnerships. Robo.to isn’t a product that is super-transparently a cash cow. But we are also not without good plans in terms of brokering communication, managing your profile allowance and your list of contacts. Simple things like having a promo that allows you to record longer content with higher resolution… I think theres a number of tactical ways to monetize Robo.to, but we are really trying to do is own a new category of communication, which is a broadcasted visual status.

Peercasters:I was at a conference a couple months ago called the Personal Democracy Forum and I had the opportunity to talk with Twitter Co-founder Jack Dorsey. At the time I asked him how he planned on monetizing Twitter and “he had no idea.” It’s been a couple months since then and Twitter is thinking about the “premium model”, but it doesn’t seem like Robo.to would “do” the premium model…

Ericson: I don’t think that’s really our first choice, we’re really about democratizing and joining disparate elements. Thinking in terms of a video status sphere federated. Robo.to is really about breaking down and blurring all those lines and creating a space for that content to live apart from any other particular service, the way email lives apart from any domain. We’re in a depression and it’s hip to be like “how are you going to make money” and that’s always an issue, but great ideas don’t flow out with cash in front. You innovate, make something cool, build an audience, then plan the least obtrusive way to monetize the audience.

Peercasters:What are some future features you see adding to Robo.to?

Ericson: Well there is quite a list. The most recent one we just put out we should mention because it relates to businesses and brands, it’s called the “maker application”. It’s an Adobe Air app that allows you to set up your own kiosk at any event or venue. For example, if I owned an ice cream parlor I could set up a kiosk where people could create updates as they come into my store, and if they create an update they get an extra scoop of ice cream. What that does is publishes my brand to out there into the “status-sphere” and it shows, in real-time, that people are enjoying my product. Similar with parties and events, it would be pretty simple to set up a kiosk and allow the rest of the world to have a peek, in real-time, what’s going on at your party. It’s a great way to extend your brand and bring something interactive and fun to do to your audience.

Peercasters: So we are thinking branding a bit. Basically, an update would have a tag and a stream and if you wanted to look at the stream you could see it all in one easy compartment.

Ericson: Yeah, with a follow up URL. Essentially you preload the kiosk app as you run it with how you want to tag the content. You can allow a contextual comment to go along with the video capture and it would syndicate out to your feed on Robo.to which could then be embedded anywhere. Something we are working on right now is an Android application for Robo.to. As you can tell from our service, we do a lot of things that make use of Google. We’ve basically created what we intended Robo.to to be: a social address book. And that’s why when you look at the site right now you ask “why is it so skinny and vertical?” It’s optimized for a mobile web view. “Why is it all about contacts?” It’s meant to be a social address book down the line.

Peercasters: Any chance you will be doing any augmented reality on your applications?

Ericson: We did an experiment with the particle logo where you could hold up the particle logo as you were recording the Robo.to video. We could record any embarrassing or non-embarrassing stuff in augmented reality. There are some challenges [with augmented reality], but they are all overcome-able.


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