Desti Launches Out of SRI to Apply Siri-like Technology to Travel Planning

Research institute SRI International has spawned companies including Apple’s virtual assistant Siri and smart news reader Trapit. Today the latest company to launch out of SRI, Desti, announced its free travel discovery and planning app for iPad. While travel discovery is crowded with both mobile and web-based tools, Desti is trying to take an artificial intelligence approach to helping people plan their trips and discover new places around the world.

CEO Nadav Gur was formerly the founder and CEO of WorldMate, a mobile travel planning platform that was acquired by Carlson Wagonlit in October 2012. Gur said Desti’s smart travel guide is designed to save travelers from having to search multiple travel sites for flights, restaurants, and other on-the-ground activities, and to help them converse with the app like they would with a travel agent, asking questions and searching for keywords.

Desti is showcasing travel information in northern California first, but eventually plans to branch out to other areas. The company’s technology combines natural language processing, semantic search, and a relevance engine to let users ask questions in everyday language, and get results based on their specific requirements. It’s like the tablet version of a real-life travel agent, letting users ask questions, get results, and refine those results without losing the context of their original request.

“What Desti is is a smart travel guide, and when we say Desti’s smart we mean two really things. One, Desti understands natural language which means you can ask it for things the same way you would ask a concierge or a travel agent,” Gur said in an interview. “The other side of it is Desti literally scours the web looking for travel information, and then she reads that information the same way you would read it, and understands it that way…to build out the world’s deepest and most detailed knowledge base about travel.”

Users can ask a question or enter a search term like they would using Siri, for example typing in “what are great pet-friendly Italian restaurants in Napa Valley?” Desti’s search results are sorted according to the best matches, and results pages feature everything from descriptions and general information, to booking information, to an outline of why that particular property fits the user’s search query. Users can book hotels through a partnership with HotelsCombined, and create collections of attractions, hotels and restaurants to plan upcoming trips.

Users can also sign in with Facebook and see their friends’ collections, and add notes to items to give their perspective. Pages for venues and attractions also feature information from third-party services like foursquare and TripAdvisor, and link to sources like Wikipedia.

The app has been in private beta for the past two months, and Gur said they’re opening it up now to build out the base of searches, and to learn how users interact with the system before launching it internationally. While right now it focuses on things to eat and see, and places to stay, Gur said they’ll likely eventually add flight and ground transportation planning, since it’s something beta users have already requested.

Currently Gur said the app is mostly being used for day and weekend trips, but that will likely change as they expand internationally. They also plan to launch smartphone and web apps to complement the iPad app, something that will likely be key to their growth, along with expanding outside of California. Right now the company takes affiliate fees for hotels booked through the app, but Gur said right now the focus is on building the user base, not monetization. “Desi’s about finding you the best match whether or not we make any money off of that,” Gur said.

Social travel apps have tried to solve everything from getting a last-minute hotel room (HotelTonight) to getting recommendations from friends (Tripbirds’ focus before they shifted to hotel bookings) and getting offline maps to explore a city (GuidePal, Triposo). There are also crowdsourced photo-driven travel discovery apps like Trover and Maptia, a yet-to-launch social travel app that garnered buzz at last week’s TechStars Seattle demo day thanks to its beautiful design.

Backed with $1.5 million in seed funding led by Horizon Ventures, the same investment firm that backed fellow SRI companies Trapit and Siri, Desti’s technology sets it apart from competitors, and will likely be the biggest differentiator from other apps. While this launch is essentially a trial run of the app, with the company looking to refine it before launching in other locations and on other platforms, it’s too early to tell whether it will disrupt the mobile travel discovery space. One thing’s for sure – travelers have no shortage of options when it comes to trip planning, so Desti will need to be spot-on with its recommendations in order to win over potential users.

Erin Bury

Erin Bury

Erin has covered startups and technology for over three years in publications including Sprouter Weekly, The Globe and Mail, Business Insider, Mashable, and VentureBeat. She also writes a regular startup column for the Financial Post, and is a technology expert on CTV News Channel. Before BetaKit Erin worked as Director of Content & Communications at Sprouter from its launch in 2009 until its acquisition by Postmedia Network Inc. She was recently named one of Marketing Magazine's 30 Under 30 in 2012.

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