Hooked on HOOKED

After revolutionizing our interactions with music through their mobile phone apps, the duo of Parag Chordia and Prerna Gupta now aims to make reading as addictive as texting, with HOOKED.

By Candice Yacono

November 2018

Hooked on HOOKED

Parag Chordia (left) and Prerna Gupta, co-founders of HOOKED. (Photograph courtesy Parag Chordia)

A husband-wife team of serial entrepreneurs is back with a new venture, after spending several years making mobile phone apps that have changed how we interact with music. One app turned speech into song, and was a breakout success. Another app turned singers into pitch-perfect professionals. And now, this power couple is striving to make reading literature as addictive as texting, with a new product called Hooked.

The app’s namesake start-up has been co-founded by Parag Chordia and Prerna Gupta, who met at Stanford University, California, 14 years ago. Chordia is the company’s chief technology officer, while Gupta is its chief executive officer.

“We focus on opportunities that lie at the intersection of art and technology,” says Chordia, who plays the sarod. “In our last start-up, we used AI [artificial intelligence] to help people make music on their mobile phones. For example, one of our apps, Songify, turned speech into song. It was the number 1 app in the world when we launched it in July 2011. We love bringing moments of joy into people’s everyday lives.”

In his “past life,” says Chordia, he was a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he founded and directed its Music Intelligence Lab, which was funded by organizations like the U.S. National Science Foundation. His research focused on marrying music and machine learning to create and model music, as well as on the neural underpinnings of musical emotion.

“We wanted to bring the unique joy of music creation to everyone,” says Chordia. “One approach we used, with some success, was to create algorithms that analyzed speech or singing and generated music. The idea was to give listeners the thrill of performing in a band. This led to apps like LaDiDa, which we called ‘reverse-karaoke;’ Songify, which turned speech into song; and AutoRap, which turned regular speech into rap.”

Soon, Chordia and Gupta found themselves at the forefront of entertainment app development. They became major players in Silicon Valley, before choosing to leave it all behind for a while and travel the world. Now, they’re back with their latest project, Hooked.

The couple wants to offer entertainment to the mobile generation, as Chordia puts it. “We have pioneered a new format, called chat fiction, which tells stories as text message conversations,” he explains. Each text builds on the previous one, creating a compelling story arc that “hooks” the reader. “In the past month, close to 40 million people have read Hooked stories on iOS, Android and Snapchat Discover,” he adds.

“We have made reading fun again for teens and millennials,” says Chordia. “Our goal is to create iconic stories that start in text form and, ultimately, may be translated into other formats like video or VR [virtual reality]. We believe that the next ‘Harry Potter’-type story will not necessarily be launched as a book, but rather, as a mobile experience. We hope to be the ones to create such deep and impactful stories.”

Hooked as well as Chordia’s and Gupta’s previous efforts highlight the potential for mobile phone apps and other services at a time when millions have the potential to make or enjoy art as well as share what they like and don’t like about it.

“One of the exciting aspects of creating apps is that launching them is just the start. After you launch an app, you see how users are responding and continually refine the product using this data,” says Chordia.

When the Hooked team receives a new story or pitch, it can use this data to determine whether the story will be a hit or not. “We have spent the past several years refining this process, and I would say it’s the ‘special sauce’ of Hooked,” he adds.

Rapid advances in technology have made apps like Songify and Hooked possible. “The ability of machines to see and hear has dramatically improved,” says Chordia. “This creates tremendous opportunities for new types of art. Humans have always used the tools and technologies of the time to make art. For example, electronics and computers have transformed how music is made and have created many new genres. I’m really excited to think about how these new tools can be applied to create profound new experiences.”

He adds that apps like Hooked are just the latest iteration of an art as old as humanity: the story.

“Stories are one of the most universal forms of art. They bind us together and are magical in how they allow us to feel and see from another person’s perspective. They are a uniquely human way of imagining different worlds and experiences. Just as the beginning of the 20th century was a time of tremendous change in the technologies for creative expression—think of sound recording, photography and moving pictures—we are again at the cusp of a radical transformation,” says Chordia. “Billions of people now have a super-computer in their pockets; the implications for storytelling are profound. We are just beginning to explore this new space. Chat fiction is a baby step toward creating new media and experiences, which ultimately will give a unique voice to the next generation’s hopes and desires.”

Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.


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