Ideally, no one would use their smartphone while driving. Realistically, people do – often putting themselves, their passengers and others in danger. Drivemode, a new company emerging from stealth today and backed by $2 million in seed funding, has developed an Android app that lets you use your phone without actually looking at it.
The Drivemode app offers access to common phone functions like calls, messages, navigation, apps and music and utilizes a combination of voice narration to let you know where you are on the menu. In addition, it uses bright colors and big animations to let you see your phone screen using only your peripheral vision.
“We’re working with automakers to make sure our interface is good enough to even be embedded in the car,” explains Drivemode co-founder and CEO Yo Koga. He says he can’t yet confirm any deals with automakers on that front, but is in discussions with several.
“There are guidelines from the government to ensure that you don’t have to look at the screen for more than two seconds per glance,” he adds. “But we’re trying to make it zero by radically simplifying the interactions.”
Koga, born and raised in Japan, previously spent time in Boston as a VC after attending Harvard Business School. He also led international partnerships at Zipcar. But it wasn’t until he relocated to work for a startup in California that he really began to get frustrated with the driving experience in general.
Smartphone interfaces have been designed to be used while held in your hands with small buttons you have to locate and touch, Koga says. There wasn’t a good interface for using the phone in the car, he found.
Of course, that’s not entirely true – Google has “Car Home,” for example, which offers big buttons you can tap more easily while at the wheel. And there are a number of similar apps also on the market. There’s also a subset of apps for drivers focused on auto-responding to texts or reading them aloud, as well as embedded systems for autos like MyFord Touch and Sync. However, I’d have to agree with Koga that none have entirely nailed the interface for this sort of thing, and users may not feel comfortable enough with any of these alternatives to use them blindly.
Drivemode, on the other hand, wants to make its app something you could use without looking at your phone at all, as its video (see below) humorously demonstrates.
Instead of just offering bigger buttons or suggesting that you turn the app on and then only operate it by voice, Drivemode users swipe through the menu while the various choices are announced with voice narration. In addition to the colors and animations, the app also uses smart technology to learn your behaviors in order to make better recommendations. For example, it can learn your routine in order to move frequent destinations (like “home”) up to the top of the list as navigation options, or it can suggest favorite contacts (like your spouse) when you head into the Calls section.
You can even access your phone’s apps through Drivemode, including those for playing music and others, too. And it has supporting features common to apps in this category, like incoming message readout and auto-reply to calls and messages.
$2 Million In Funding And $10K From Blog Readers
The company, now a team of six based in both San Jose and Japan, also includes co-founders Hokuto Ueda (who’s currently full-time at Tesla), Jeff Standard as Head of Product, plus mechanical engineer/Android developer Hiro Nakagawa.
Drivemode is backed entirely by Tokyo-based Incubate Fund, which typically invests in local companies, but opted to invest in U.S.-headquartered Drivemode because of its potential to appeal to a global audience.
“Use of smartphones instead of in-vehicle navigation systems is becoming a truly global trend, and Drivemode can see wide adoption across many countries where Android is used,” says Incubate GP Tohru Akaura, in a statement.
In addition to the funding, Koga was also able to build his team, attract investment and even furnish his office thanks to his status as an influential Japanese blogger. Readers donated over $10,000 after he announced on a post that he was leaving Globespan Capital Partners to do a startup.
Limited Invites Available
Drivemode is launching today for a limited number of beta testers in the U.S. International users can provide an email address to be alerted to future expansions. After downloading the Android application from the company website (not Google Play), you can use the activation code TCMODE to immediately get started.