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Software company Votek launches Loujee, a stuffed toy with Arabic speech recognition

Startup Spotlight

Perhaps Mary Shelley’s classic novel is telling in more ways than we thought. Though Frankenstein was able to bestow life to a lifeless body, his monster, fully grown with an eight-foot high frame, could not muster any words, nor could it understand speech. Almost two hundred years later, in trying to create a seemingly sentient personal assistant, Google, Apple, and tardy Microsoft are still attempting to perfect speech recognition. Particularly telling of their intent is the fact that Apple and Microsoft have dubbed their creations with human names.

Over in the Middle East, Votek, a software company that specializes in developing solutions based on Arabic speech recognition, has invested its learnings in Loujee, a smart educational toy. Founded in 2014 by a 33-year old Syrian practicing dentist, Lojain Jibawi, and a 29-year old engineer from Tunisia, Sawsan Saeed, Loujee is the company’s first foray into consumer products.

Loujee has all the seemings of a typical cuddly plush toy – brightly colored, furry, lop-eared, and in endearing proportions. But unlike the majority of its kin, Loujee is able to converse.

A toy with an interactive face

The toy itself doesn’t come with any built-in hardware. Instead, the buyer must insert an iPhone or an iPad into the stuffed creature through a slit on the side of its head. With the proprietary app on, the phone’s screen displays the eyes and nose that give Loujee its interactive face.

A long press on the screen wakes it up, a double tap changes the subject of the conversation, rubbing the nose illicits a giggle. Loujee responds to physical stimuli as well. Using the accelerometer, it senses whether it’s being thrown, dropped, shaken, struck or turned upside down and reacts accordingly.

Officially unveiled last October, it comes in three sizes, with prices ranging from $49 to $81, and ships globally; the majority of customers come from KSA and Kuwait. The app can be downloaded for free from the App Store, but it requires a code to work; this code comes with the toy. Alternatively, the app can be activated with an in-app purchase. “The price is very close to the toy, so it is better to buy the toy,” adds Jibawi. “What’s more, without the toy, the app will not react to physical stimuli, such as throwing, spin, etc.”

That can quiz children

Besides some playful chitter-chatter, Loujee is programed with a number of educational games and riddles and can recite stories, anecdotes and facts. Some questions, arithmetic for example, need be answered on the spot, but children will also be quizzed on facts they’ve heard from Loujee after a few days. Parents can monitor their child’s performance as well by through stats that detail the type of games played, questions answered, how well they’ve been answered, and so on.

Operating from Syria

Votek’s services employ proprietary technology. The system is able to understand both literary and colloquial speech – so does Loujee, consequently – and can be fine tuned to any specific dialect. Jibawi tells me that their technology achieves 96% accuracy and that their solutions work offline.

Jibawi occupies Votek’s Dubai office, but most of his team operates from a second office in Damascus. Following a recent recruitment round, Votek’s staff will comprise four employees in Dubai and 12 in Damascus. Finding talent in Syria hasn’t been easy; “there aren’t many options left”, explains Jibawi. Yet, he is adamant that, though difficult to find, the best talent is in Syria.

For its first project, Votek developed an automated response system for the Mohammed Bin Rashid Housing Establishment. The establishment did not have enough capacity to accommodate the stream of phone calls so Votek devised a system that understood questions and gave answers automatically.

Currently, Votek sells its solution as a product but it is looking to offer a licensing option. It is also working on moving its interactive voice response technology to the cloud, which would enable it to deliver much quicker updates to their services.

Listening to Jibawi talk about Loujee, one can’t help but feel that it has platform written all over it. Though he entertains the idea, he does admit that it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. For now, the critical factor for him is to have more users that, in turn, would entice developers to come aboard. They are however looking to develop more mobile education apps in the near future.

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