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Qwiki's Wall-E style narrated online encyclopedia goes live for everyone

Much-lauded startup Qwiki — an online Wikipedia-esque service that throws displays information with computer-generated voices, images and video — is coming out of private alpha and opening up to everyone today.

The service basically feels like it’s from the future. Actors asking like questions to a computer and getting large swaths of information back is basically a sci-fi trope in movies like Wall-E at this point, and that’s exactly what Qwiki does — though sans Sigourney Weaver. Users simply type in something in Qwiki’s search bar and get a two- to three-minute clip of spoken information and a few pictures or videos.

Qwiki launched its private alpha at TechCrunch Disrupt, an industry conference, in September last year raised $9.5 million from the likes of Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin in a short few months. The service got more than a hundred thousand requests to join the private alpha, according to a spokesperson for the company.

Qwiki has around 3 million topics in its database, ranging from geographic locations like San Francisco to actresses like Natalie Portman (though being a math nerd, I went straight to pages with information on meromorphic functions and the Riemann-Zeta function.) The information presented is surprisingly comprehensive without throwing out a tsunami of facts that might pop up on some of the largest Wikipedia pages.

Doug Imbruce, the company’s co-founder, said the service was going to make its way to smartphones and tablets at Disrupt in the fall. The idea would be to wake up in the morning to a quick feed of some of the most interesting news, weather and traffic data presented in the same style as the rest of Qwiki’s pages. Other website owners can also embed Qwiki widgets on their pages for specific topics.

Qwiki’s largest investment actually came from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, Juniper Networks co-founder Pradeep Sindhu, Lerer Media Ventures, Tugboat Ventures and Contour Venture Partners also invested in the company.

The new live alpha won’t require any kind of special account to execute searches, but users can still sign up and leave some feedback if they like. There won’t be any kind of cap on the number of users visiting the site or signing up.

Qwiki was the darling of last fall’s TechCrunch Disrupt 2010 competition for start-ups, winning a $50,000 prize and the Disrupt Cup. Qwiki was also the runner-up for best technological achievement at this year’s Crunchies awards — an academy award-style ceremony for start-ups and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

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