Building Smarter Apps

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A new breed of mobile applications is coming. These new apps will not only “sense” the world around you, using the smartphone’s sensors like the compass, GPS, and accelerometer – they’ll also be able to combine that data with a history of your actions to intelligently determine your likes, interests and favorites. This understanding of the world, or “ambient discovery” if you will, could then be piped into any app to make it smarter, whether it’s a social app for finding friends, a Siri-like personal assistant, a fitness app, a mobile game, or anything else.

This, at least, is the promise from the Palo Alto-based startup, Alohar Mobile, which recently introduced new SDKs for mobile app developers interested in experimenting with the possibilities of smarter apps.

Alohar Mobile (newly emerged from stealth mode), was founded by a former Platform Architect of Google’s Location Server Platform, Sam Liang. You may know him as the guy who put the “blue dot” location service in tens of thousands of mobile apps, including the default Map app on iPhone and Android, as well as in the Facebook check-in, Foursquare and Yelp. He also architected Google Latitude.

Liang started the company with Stanford alumni, Larry Wang and Alvin Lau, and they’ve now raised $2 million in funding from notable angel investors, including David Cheriton, the first investor in Google, Fortinet founder and CEO Ken Xie, and Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

As for what, exactly, Alohar is providing – that’s a bit more complicated. It’s not just developing a smarter Siri, although that description is sure to catch more readers’ attention than something like “mobile development platform,” for example. While a smarter Siri-like app could be the product of Alohar’s work, it is not the work itself.

Lau describes the technology as an “ambient sensing platform.”

Um, say what?

“We’ve developed technology that sits on a smartphone that analyzes data coming from all the different sensors on your phone – for example, GPS and Wi-Fi – but a lot of companies do that, that’s nothing special. But we also gather data from the accelerometer, the compass, the gyroscope,” explains Lau. “It helps us to determine a person’s exact location.”

What that means is that apps using Alohar’s technology can precisely determine where someone is because of the way data is combined. For example, an app relying on GPS alone may know that you’re somewhere near a Starbucks, but can’t really tell if you’re there or in an adjacent store. Alohar-enabled apps, however, could detect things like the rate at which you’re moving (60 MPH? You’re probably driving down the road past a Starbucks), the direction you’re headed (moving towards the building slowly? You’re probably walking into the Starbucks), the network you’re connected to (ATTWIFI? You’re probably inside the Starbucks), and even time of day (8:30 AM? You’re probably at the Starbucks on the ground level of that skyscraper, not the nightclub on the top floor).

None of the data is used in isolation, but is instead parsed by advanced algorithms to make sense of your actions and movements. The algorithms give the app higher or lower probabilities to different types of places.

These algorithms can also take into account what you’ve done in the past and use that to help weight the data appropriately. For example, if you’ve visited that Starbucks several times over the past couple of weeks, but have never visited the bagel shop next door, the algorithm knows that you’re probably at the Starbucks.

Alohar’s technology has been packaged into a SDK for mobile developers, which allows them to create new apps or enhance existing ones. They’ve also released a sample app into the App Store called PlaceMe, which is an interesting product on its own. The app tracks and records your movements, producing a virtual trail you could later pull up online. A bit creepy, perhaps, but the company says it would be handy for Alzheimer’s patients to have installed.

But while PlaceMe is a fun experiment, the focus for the company is more so on the tech behind it. Some mobile app makers are already working on integrations, but Alohar can’t reveal who just yet, only give general descriptions. “Developers who are using [the SDK] are in the categories of dating, fitness and health apps that want to track your exercise and make recommendations, and shopping apps that make suggestions based on your location and your likes and favorites,” says Lau.

He also mentioned some check-in apps were experimenting with auto-checkins and the reduced battery consumption the tech enables. Plus, two of these twelve “ambient location” startups that were hot during this year’s SXSW have begun to implement the technology, too.

But it’s still early days for Alohar. The Android SDK came out in March and the iOS version arrived just this month. Both are in beta. So far, around 65 developers are evaluating or integrating the technology, Lau says.

And yet, almost any app that uses location services could benefit from the more precise targeting the tech offers, assuming everything works as advertised. More than that, the tech could enable a whole new kind of experience for developers to build on top of – one where users don’t have to do so much manual labor to explain to apps where they are and what they’re doing and what they want to do.

It’s yet another step towards engineering the serendipitous discovery of the world around us, via our mobile devices. It’s the underpinnings that could breathe intelligence into our apps, which could then make them, at best, more useful, more engaging, and ultimately, more loved…or, at worst, more creepy, more intrusive, more stalker-ish.

How developers choose to implement the technology, and the level of control they give to users surrounding that data’s use and storage, could raise a whole new series of questions about data privacy even though Apple, Google, developers and the government, are still figuring out what to do about the concerns we already have now – those that come more basic actions like accessing the address book or storing GPS data.

But with the fast pace of technology, sometimes you have to weigh the good with the bad and choose to move forward or get left behind. Using this scale, the possibilities to develop more intelligent apps – not to mention ones that can reduce battery drains – is a more exciting and promising step than the potential for abuse, real as it may be, from unscrupulous developers or the government (at least in less authoritarian regimes like the U.S.). You may not agree. That’s fine. But sometimes the laws have to catch up with the world, and in the mobile ecosystem, this is clearly going to be the case for years to come.

Below, a demo of how Alohar, doing things like automatically ordering an ambulance for you. “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up?” Yes, your phone will know.

Image credit: Ryan Orr