Have the blues? This AI will send you an SMS to give you confidence

(Blue Fever co-founders Lauren Tracy and Greta McAnany)

Before the internet, emo teens would retreat to bedrooms, put the needle on the vinyl, and listen to The Smiths (or whatever got you through the night). But now staring at the ceiling or scribbling in a newspaper is replaced by a constant stream of neatly curated social media feeds, which can be confusing for teens in this delicate developmental stage of identity formation.

Can technology, the very one that contributes to these feelings of inadequacy and FOMO, help young people cope? At PCMag, we tested a few emotionally conscious concepts, from the 7 Cups Listening Network and an AI trained in relationship drama to Facebook Messenger and cartoon penguin therapists.

More recently we checked Blue fever, a service that sends video texts on demand. A Techstars graduate, Blue Fever is currently part of USC’s Viterbi Startup Garage, a startup incubator for high tech and AI companies.

Here’s how Blue Fever works: Once you have sign, all you do is text your #mood to the service and their AI tries to get you back on track with some fun, uplifting, enlightening, or just plain crazy times. We tried it, and it’s like having a friend (with serious machine learning in their non-bio-based cortex) who doesn’t mind being disturbed by your business at 4 a.m.

We spoke with co-founders Lauren Tracy and Greta McAnany to find out more. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation

Lauren and Greta, what is the concept behind Blue Fever?
[GM] Over the past few years, we had both noticed that the internet was shifting from research-based research, then browsing social media, to a more self-medicating, always-on consumption experience. We all spend hours mindlessly watching Netflix or scrolling through our IG streams, but this behavior is unaware. We’re all looking for something, but we can’t find it.

[LT] So we wanted to create an AI platform that provides an emotionally satisfying on-demand solution. Especially for underserved audiences, like teens and young women, who really need positive images to gain confidence.

[GM] We launched in June 2017, pivoted our business model and focus through incubation at Techstars, and we are now expanding our product, our platform and expanding our audience.

Blue fever

Blue Fever is a personal AI that delivers cool content?
[GM] Yes. And the emphasis is on “personal” – not “personalized” – that’s an important distinction. Browsers can track my cookies and see what I’m watching, buying or doing, and targeting ads to me. But it’s not really personal.

Good point. The advertisements that Google offers me make me laugh (especially). But when I tried Blue Fever I texted my #mood (#meh, as it was) and got something that actually made me smile.
[LT] And you didn’t have to look for it. Blue Fever’s AI knows what to use.

Empathetic but not therapeutic AI?
[GM] Law. Because, of course, Blue Fever can be therapeutic, but we’re not building a therapy tool. Our empathetic AI is more like a slightly older good friend organizing the internet for you, based on your self-reported emotional state.

Explain how you train the Blue Fever AI algorithm.
[LT] We looked at whether we wanted to take advantage of other models, other types of curation, especially other industries like music, games, movies. Then we realized we had to build our own.

[GM] Mainly because much of the work done to date is not directed to our primary audience due to input bias.

[LT] Law. Our Blue Fever formula is a conversational AI, on the scale of the Dialogflow platform, developed at Google. We started with human-to-human interaction, feeding the neural network with IRL messages, discussions, discussions, and responses; teach AI good female vernacular 13-20, and let her learn from there.

Authenticity is the key. When I interviewed Stanford professor Dr Alison Darcy, founder of Woebot, she talked about “feeding” her AI with geeky lyrics like Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica therefore young men in their twenties could identify with each other.
[GM] Absoutely. Our value system is based entirely on the trust of our users. We don’t have a product without it.

[LT] Technology allows us to build that trust, but it learns from human input and is constantly being validated.

So your AI platform is “human in the loop”? Constantly monitored by biological beings to make sure Blue Fever is communicating properly?
[LT] In fact, instead of “human AI in the loop”, we call it “Hai” [for] human artificial intelligence.

You incubated Blue Fever at Techstars. What did you learn the most about running a startup there?
[GM] Techstars was a real turning point for us as entrepreneurs. I like to say that we came in as “media founders,” because our original business model was to create content, but we came out of Techstars as true tech founders. Our mentors there, especially Anna Barber [Managing Director, Techstars LA], kept hammering us this message: “Think about the problem in a new way, use technology to solve it.” “

[LT] So we did. And by the time we left Techstars, we had evolved Blue Fever from a content game to a messaging platform with an AI component. We were part of Anna’s first cohort of start-ups, and she treated tech entrepreneurs like us from day one. “You have a clear understanding of the problem and a vision of how to solve it, and I will bet on you” [she said]. His attitude made all the difference.

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Aside from your support of the USC Viterbi Startup Garage, who are your investors and what did they really have in your pitch?
[GM] We have several early stage investors. Jesse Draper, Founding Partner of Halogen Ventures, when hearing our pitch on personal messaging using AI, said, “You’re going to solve the problems in the media industry. am. Another big supporter is BlueRun Ventures. They liked our approach to Gen Z and their emotional lives. Their feedback was like, “We see these two founders and they are passionate and hungry. We will support them.”

How much did they give you and what is your income model?
[LT] We are not yet ready to talk about numbers. We will hopefully do so in the first quarter of 2020. Right now our focus is on scaling the product and making it work well.

Can you share the registration numbers, or is it too early for that too?
[GM] What we can say, at the moment, is that we have users in all 50 states and have processed a volume of 3 million messages through our platform.

Short content is becoming a “thing” in Hollywood, not just on YouTube. Sources say Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman plan to spend $ 1 billion on “bite-sized” items by 2025 in Quibi.
[GM] The transition makes sense. Our lives have changed as services have become automated. For example, I used to drive everywhere, now I use carpooling. I used to cook, now I have it delivered. We end up with little moments that are great for shortened content.

[LT] Which makes it even more important to have these little moments of content curated especially for you and for how you feel.

Are you developing your core product to go beyond teens / young women?
[GM] Not immediately. But that’s the end goal. We are focused on developing this content for young women as they are currently underserved in terms of quality, confidence building and mood enhancing content. And, as a business, we want to start with a clear target market to differentiate ourselves.

Finally, what’s the next step for you?
[LT] We are heading to SXSW soon to participate in a panel on technology, industry and business [on March 9]. [We’ve been before but] this is the first time that we are going there as “technological co-founders”.

[GM] Which is really cool.

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