by Megan Freshley
Every kid has their own way of connecting with the mystery of the universe. For Ground Control CEO Mike Macadaan, this formative state of wonder came special delivery from a color-block, 8-track playing robot by the name of 2XL — touted as “the robot with personality.” A few decades later, Mike is about to hit play on interactive audio startup Ground Control.
Not quite Spike Jonze’s Her
Mike’s throwback robot was designed as an educational toy delivering a computer-like experience. Its 8-track brain played tapes recorded in over-the-top voices by its parent company Mego about math, science, history, and even current events. Right around the time the Voyager was snapping its first close-ups of Saturn, the boxy beige-and-white 2XL captured Macadaan imagination.
“I was young and very curious about science, history, outer space, and music. With a parent that didn’t like to live in the same place for more than a year coupled with being an only child, this made it challenging to develop friendships. In comes my new bf,” Macadaan says.
“There were lights in the eye sockets and a simple control panel. The controls were nicely color coded and labeled to let know each of the buttons’ functions. The knob to turn it on was this slow-moving dial that had this fantastic click to signal on or off. The feedback was auditory and physical — wonderful. In my opinion as a 10-year-old, the Mego company crushed it with the aesthetics.”
But it wasn’t just the educational side of this ancestral audio-based home tech that sparked something. “When the learning became boring, I would pop in a KISS tape and jam out to rock and roll. This was my first experience interfacing with something that appeared to be a computer,” Macadaan says. “This was my first recollection of a complete static user experience.”
“It sounded smart, like annoyingly smart — a real know it all. A young, nebbish New York professor type. Fast talking, non-gendered, dramatic intonations, and dense knowledge. A little intimidating, but somehow you knew it was your friend.”
Between Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, you’ve probably already used a speech-based AI today. As machine learning propels voice-activated artificial intelligence closer and closer toward the Turing-passing conversationalists the tech world dreams of, consumers are less shackled to screens.
Voice-based AI lets users communicate like they would with any other intelligent entity by removing the need to physically handle a device at all. That’s right — it looks like we’ll all be spared the carpal tunnel and dry eyes we’ve become accustomed to in the screen-based present once we make the full leap toward a more intuitive mode of interaction with our tech.
In envisioning Ground Control, Macadaan says there are three primary layers to their AI stack:
1. The ease of everyday conversation
Interactive audio isn’t just about getting GPS directions or ordering from the Thai place down the street. Its implications in education (like Mego foreshadowed back in 1978), gaming, hospitality, and auto are pretty limitless. And that’s where Creative Artists Agency comes in. With their incredible talent roster, CAA will bring your favorite celebrities and athletes’ voices to Ground Control. Instead of the pat, monotone robot speech you’re used to hearing in interactive audio, what if you could hear the signature voices of your favorite actors?
2. Flexible, multi-platform technology
Thanks to a greater proliferation of open-source AI speech platforms, Ground Control will be able to publish onto a variety of systems and devices. Right now, invocation is different between Alexa, Google, Apple, and other AI platforms, meaning users have to learn a number of different ways to engage with their AI companions. Ground Control’s tech will help make that easier.
“There’s no app store for voice skills and actions,” Macadaan says. “So we’re going to be able to create a path to discovery.” They’re both developing new experiences and ways to find those experiences.
What technology & pop culture sound like together
If you’re ready to discover machine learning-powered audio that delivers personalized, fun encounters, you’re not alone. “Alexa or Siri get old. It’s uncomfortable. A celebrity you’re familiar with is a completely new experience,” Macadaan says.
“We’ve been testing in this huge studio space in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s incredible how people interact with this when they hear familiar voices. Things are becoming more low-touch. It started off with a clunky mouse, and then touch and gesture. Now voices are a way to compute and control these experiences. For me as a designer, this is the greatest moment ever.”