A few years ago, when Apple added Siri to the iPhone, talking to inanimate objects with batteries to make them do stuff was pretty novel. Today, thanks to companies like Wit.ai, even kids at hackathons are showing off weekend projects that are voice-controlled.
Wit.ai, a Y Combinator-backed startup that provides natural language processing (NLP) in the form of an API, is helping developers and startups integrate voice commands into their products. The company is announcing today that it has raised $3 million in seed funding just over a year since its founders posted the first API version on Hacker News.
Wit.ai is very much following Twilio’s API model, which made voice calls and SMS integration easier than ever. Wit.ai’s API can power apps, wearable devices, home automation devices, and robots. It can also process both voice commands and text-based communication like text messages or chats.
This is not Wit.ai co-founder Alex Lebrun’s first foray into natural language. In 2002, he and Laurent Landowski and Callixte Cauchois founded VirtuOz, a “Siri for the enterprise,” which they eventually sold to Nuance Communications a decade later. Of his experience, Lebrun writes:
The experience of building the ‘Siri’ for customers of big companies like AT&T, eBay, H&R Block, AOL, gave us a first-hand look at just how difficult and tedious a task speech and natural language truly were. Each natural language interface we created took 3 to 6 months to build and involved direction not only from our development team but also linguists and knowledge management experts. And because of the extremely high cost of setup, there was no solution tailored to smaller businesses or developers. No vendor was getting natural language user interfaces widely adopted, including us.
Nuance has actually released a Siri-like app that developers can integrate into their projects, making it an alternative to Wit.ai’s API. Other players in this space include Intel (which acquired Indysis) and Amazon (which acquired Ivona Software and Evie), among others.
Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon led the round, with additional participation from Ignition Partners, NEA, Ashton Kutcher’s A-Grade, SV Angel, Eric Hahn, Alven Capital, and TenOneTen.
Wit.ai was founded in Oct. 2013 by Lebrun and Willy Blandin and is based in Palo Alto, Calif. The company was part of Y Combinator’s Winter 2014 batch.