Streaming giant Spotify, most famous for its music and podcast streaming services targeting consumers, is making an acquisition of a voice AI company to expand its reach in audio technology -- opening the door not just to building more functionality on Spotify itself, but other potential business opportunities elsewhere, too. Today, the company announced that it is acquiring Sonantic, a London-based startup that has built an AI engine to create very realistic-sounding, yet simulated, human voices from text.
You may not know the name Sonantic, but you may have seen its work. The company was founded to build AI-based realistic voice services for gaming and entertainment environments, and its technology helped bring Val Kilmer's voice to life in "Top Gun: Maverick." In real life, the actor is unable to speak as he did in the past as a result of throat cancer; so for the sequel where he reprised his role as a foil (and now friend) to Tom Cruise, his condition, and the simulated voice Sonantic created, were both written into the plot of the film.
The companies are not disclosing the financial terms of the deal. Sonantic had raised less than $3 million in funding from an interesting group of investors that included EQT Ventures, Entrepreneur First (EF), AME Cloud Ventures, Bart Swanson of Horizons Ventures, Twitch's Kevin Lin, Jeremy Jap, Charles Jolley and more.
It's also not clear what the timing of the acquisition was and whether it came out of the startup looking for more fundraising, or the success of the high-profile film exposure, or something else altogether.
"We've been aware of Sonantic's technology for a while," a spokesperson said in answer to the question. He also said that the whole of the Sonantic team will sit inside of the "Consumer and Platform BU in the Personalization Mission" led by Ziad Sultan, who is VP of personalization at Spotify.
“We’re really excited about the potential to bring Sonantic’s AI voice technology onto the Spotify platform and create new experiences for our users,” Sultan said in a statement. “This integration will enable us to engage users in a new and even more personalized way.”
Spotify notes in a blog post that it sees "several potential opportunities for text-to-speech capabilities across our platform," and from the looks of it the most immediate applications for using the tech indeed will be on Spotify itself, especially as it expands its reach further into new environments where consumers cannot immerse themselves in on-screen interactions -- such as in vehicles, by way of services like Car Thing, launched earlier this year.
One example that Spotify gives of how it might use the tech is to use AI voices to bring more audio-based recommendations and descriptions to users who are not looking at their screens -- for example, for those driving cars or listening while doing other activities and not able to look at a screen.
"We believe that over the long term, high-quality voice will be important to growing our share of listening," it notes.
What's interesting to consider is what plans, if any, Spotify might have for Sonantic's existing operations, which are focused on a more B2B business line. We noted when the company last announced funding that it had 10 R&D partnerships in place with AAA gaming studios, and it is a regular presence at events like GDC.
"As regards Sonantic's existing business relationships, we’re still determining that with Sonantic but as it stands it’s business as usual," the spokesperson said.
AI being built to simulate voices is a very interesting piece of tech for a company like Spotify that could potentially have lots of other applications.
Given how much the company has staked on podcasting to complement music and the tools that it's building for creators -- both those working in podcasting but also music producing and music-making -- there is potential for using what Sonantic has built to develop tools that creators could use, either to make the business of producing podcasts easier, or to think of entirely new kinds of interactions with their audiences.
Alongside that is the idea that Spotify could continue Sonantic's relationships with gaming and entertainment studios, representing a new front for Spotify itself in how it diversifies its own business with more enterprise-facing, B2B products, an area where Spotify has not done much to date but remains a big area for how it might grow and mature.
“We’re looking forward to joining Spotify and continuing to build exciting voice experiences,” say Sonantic co-founders Zeena Qureshi and John Flynn in a joint statement. “We believe in the power voice has and its ability to foster a deeper connection with listeners around the world, and we know we can be better than ever on the world’s largest audio platform.”