Enter “Buenos Aires” into the search bar on the website Qwiki.com and a video pops up. It first zooms in on a map of the city as a vaguely robotic-sounding female voice describes its location. Then infographics appear to illustrate the statistics on its population and density, and a series of photos and videos stream across the screen as the narrator discusses the city’s main attractions. This is exactly what Doug Imbruce, Qwiki’s CEO, was wishing for one day in 2009 when he was headed to the Argentine capital. “I typed ‘Buenos Aires’ into Google to get an overview and understand what I should do, where I should go, population stats,” he says. “I was perusing all these links when I thought, Wouldn’t it be better if the machine could act like a human and present me with the most important details? And that was the initial brainstorm.”
Launched in January, the alpha version of Qwiki offers videos on three million of the Internet’s most popular topics. Pulling information from Wikipedia and other sources, Qwiki’s algorithm compiles each video, including the infographics, in real time. In other words, it’s not just a file sitting there waiting to be streamed; it’s more like a search result in multimedia form. As Imbruce puts it, Qwiki is trying to move away from “those 15 blue links staring back at you,” the standard search-result format that Qwiki’s CTO, Louis Monier, invented 15 years ago when he founded AltaVista. Studies have shown, and anecdotal evidence certainly backs them up, that multimedia presentations increase recall rates. Qwiki’s goal is to turn information into an experience.
But search is not the only use envisioned for Qwiki’s technology. Personalization is a future goal: For example, the company is developing a custom alarm-clock function that provides local weather and traffic reports and announces the user’s daily schedule. In fact, thinking of Qwiki in terms of search is not exactly right. The company sees itself as the creator of a new media format, a platform that will eventually be used for generating multimedia content from whatever source the user directs it to, be it an online profile or a restaurant review.
With the release of its iPad app in late April, Qwiki has moved even closer to Imbruce’s original conception. Now, a visitor to Buenos Aires can search by location for all the nearby Qwikis, including videos on the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks, the history of tango and the local accent. “We’ve had such a positive reaction from users worldwide,” says Imbruce. “It’s a format people really do love.”