According to Jim Barisano, chairman/CEO of WheelsTV, fully one-third of Americans are looking for a new car. That’s people whose car leases are expiring, plus all those SUV and truck owners looking to trade in for something less gas-guzzling. “The whole notion of buying and selling autos is always front and center,” he says.
WheelsTV got its start ten years ago as a site for car reviews. Four years ago, it became a digital network, licensing its popular professional car reviews to Comcast, Vehix, AOL, MSN, Auto Trader and others. Its own site also evolved. Barisano says it is just coming out of open beta. It is also ready to go mobile, via web browser in the Sept/Oct time frame.
Even four years ago, said Barisano, the intent was to go mobile. “We thought about the mobile screen because it makes all the sense in the world,” he said. “When people travel, the one thing they make sure they have is the handset. Wherever you go, you have it with you – and in the automobile, so they go hand in hand.”
What has made that possible is a partnership with Azuki Systems, a company that’s been in stealth mode, financed by $6.6 million from Sigma Partners and Kepha Partners. Co-founder John Tremblay says Azuki is designed to drive increased use of rich media on mobile. “Only 5 to 10 percent of people even try to play rich media,” he said.”It’s not getting into mainstream. We want to break down the barriers to drive mainstream adoption.”
Azuki Systems’ plan–which focuses on navigation/discoverability; personalization; and social networking–resides with its MashMedia platform. “We wanted to build a customized experience for the consumer,” says Tremblay. “If I like sports cars and SUVs – maybe that’s my affinity. How do I personalize it? We created MyGarage, a personalized channel related to WheelTV’s 10,000 hours of content.”
MyGarage is the user’s virtual channel, where he can put up photos of himself and his car and upload videos he creates or downloads from YouTube. The system detects the capabilities of the phone to provide the highest quality playback experience for videos. Media is broken down into searchable bits. For example, a 10-minute clip on a Ferrari might be broken into 10 tiles, each one representing a minute of content. “I can click on the one minute I’m interested in and not have to go through nine minutes to get there,” says Tremblay. Media can be sliced into time increments or, for something like a news report, editorial markers.
Socialization is a big part of My Garage. The user can share, blog and IM. He can write or read comments on whatever portion of the 10-minute video clip desired; socialization is essentially threaded around specific content. Socialization can be population-wide or limited to just friends. The user can import his Facebook profile and Azuki Systems uses his list of interests as keywords to search for other media that might be of interest. “We capture the underlying metadata of what you’re seeing to build a more personalized experience,” he says. “And we also get context clues from your friends.”
“It’s got all the capabilities you might find in Facebook or MySpace except it’s all focused around you and your automotive lifestyle,” says Barisano. “Each garage has its own personality, and people find videos and photos on the Internet and share it with each other.”
“If you’re out and looking at a car you might want to buy, with Azuki, you can shoot stills or video and buddy-blast it to your wife or friends and ask them what they think,” he continues. “You can send it to your mechanic and get his opinion about the funny noise it’s making.”
Social networking is clearly a crucial aspect of mobile content and, with My Garage, WheelsTV and Azuki Systems might just be on to a killer combination.
“With the auto, people want to be able to help others with their vehicle,” says Barisano. “As we grow, we want it to be a place where people can go and say, I have an A4 Audi and it’s riding rough. Does anybody out there have the same problem? We think the community aspect of Wheels TV will make this a destination site.”
WheelsTV on the mobile platform is not yet advertiser supported, says Barisano. “We want to get to millions of users before we advertise, and the type of advertising we plan to do will be personalized and contextualized advertising. if you’re driving an Audi, you won’t be interested in an ad for a Japanese car, so you’ll get advertising aimed squarely at you.”