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ViKi: Making online video speak in tongues

December 8, 2010 |  6:30 pm

ViKi, ViiKii, crowdsource, translations, subtitles
I love the concept of crowd-sourcing the production of entertainment, or at least some elements thereof. But actually making it work is, well, complicated. For instance, I'm skeptical about the potential for crowd-sourced directing or editing -- those seem to depend too much on an individual's artistic vision.

Wednesday, however, marked the emergence of another site that enlists the crowd's help to translate media, as has been done successfully in the manga industry. ViKi (formerly ViiKii), a start-up based in Palo Alto and Singapore, uses volunteers to provide subtitles for TV shows, movies and other forms of video from around the world, including the Pacific Rim, Mexico, India, Turkey and Egypt.

The volunteers enter subtitles as they watch the shows in a wiki format that enables successive viewers to improve on the previous ones' work. According to the company, as many as 500 people are involved in writing the subtitles for a single episode. Their efforts enable ViKi to bring the videos to markets outside their home countries and develop an international fan base, without the cost (in dollars or time) of professional subtitlers.

The company announced Wednesday that it had raised $4.3 million from four venture capital firms, among others, and was coming out of beta.

So far, translators have provided subtitles in more than 140 languages. How does ViKi persuade them to do it for free? Caroline Hacker, a spokeswoman for ViKi, said part of the draw was the chance to interact with other viewers and translators. Each episode's translators are also recognized in credits that roll at the beginning of the video, as well as on ViKi's site.

ViKi's current model is to license videos from producers and then share advertising revenue with them, Hacker said, adding that ViKi plans to expand next year into fee-based video on demand. Streaming video is an increasingly crowded field, so it's going to be hard for any of the shows ViKi licenses to stand out. But the crowd-sourced subtitles at least enable ViKi to pitch those shows to a much wider audience than they could in their original form.

 -- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.