Robo.to TV Mode: Real-Time Visual Search Arrives Today

Last Updated Sep 21, 2009 1:49 PM EDT

You could say that Robo.to, a beta visual status app, had a pretty good first month.

Since being launched in August by Particle, the product incubator whose major invester is Justin Timberlake, Robo.to, according to CEO Rey Flemings, has attracted 20,000 accounts, yielding 100,000 mini-videos, each just four seconds in length. The company says 375,000 unique visitors viewed these videos 1.5 million times in August.

Hold on. Four seconds?
In the Age of Twitter, this was bound to happen. For video, the equivalent of 140 characters would have to be (please wait while I do the math), yep, about four seconds.

"Robo.to is designed to be your personal 'calling card' on the web, " Flemings told me. "It is built for easy use and for sharing. We bring the user's avatar into the text, so it is no longer a static element."

Looking at a screen filled with these little four-second videos is a lot like that closing shot in the movie, "Love Actually," where all sorts of folks are greeting each other at Heathrow Airport, a pastiche of humanity expressing emotions.

What struck me was how young and how global the earliest content creators tend to be -- Robo.to seems to have initially caught on all over Asia, South America and Europe. (Is there anyplace on earth with more webcams than Manila?)
"Our users, after one month, are heavy social media users--those who like the 'write once and publish everywhere capability,'" says Flemings. " They skew younger so far, mainly around college-aged."

Robo.to is like texting in video, you might call it vexting. Though four seconds is a fairly severe constraint, signs of creativity are already emerging. As is the case with Twitter, Robo.to tends to reverse time, with the most recent videos the first ones you see.

"It's really about 'you now,'" says Flemings, "independent of destination." The videos are meant to be integrated with social media, like Twitter, Facebook, or Flickr.
Today, Particle is releasing a new mode for Robo.to, called the TV Mode, which allows users to create personalized channels using hashtags, keywords, or people to conduct a kind of real-time video search.

"Large news events create conversations on Twitter but they are hard to follow," notes Flemings. "TV Mode solves some of these problems."

Another problem Robo.to addresses is the lack of a verified identity behind all of those anonymous handles. "It is visual, so unlike text the video provides a verified account," says Flemings. "There's no question that it is you."

Much like Twitter, Robo.to may be attracting plenty of attention online, but it is actually built for mobile platforms. Flemings explains: "It is skinny scoped, built to scroll. It is really a mobile app -- it has an identical look to an iPhone display."

Flemings says the company expects to be able to monetize this product via the marketing and advertising aspects of social media, as well as brand management and product placement opportunities. We can expect the announcement of a Twitter Pro equivalent for Robo.to very soon.

Meanwhile, I'm eager to view a reverse documentary in the form of four-second clips telling a story backwards through time. Flemings agrees it is coming. "We have to encourage misuse. We can't imagine everything Robo.to can be used for ourselves."

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.