Smartphones are now mobile data-collecting powerhouses, replete with a variety of sensors designed to gather information about you and the world around you. Alohar is a new company that wants to take what your phone knows and turn it into predictive data that can help mobile developers come up with apps that better serve your situational and contextual needs.
To demonstrate what their software development kit (SDK) can do, Alohar created Placeme, an iPhone and Android app that passively keeps track of a user’s wanderings and provides a comprehensive list of the places they’ve been, organized by day. Placeme is a shipped, functional product, but Alohar isn’t an app-making firm; the software was created to provide a visceral demo of what Alohar’s SDK can provide, and the company’s efforts will be focused on getting as many development partners on board as possible.
The vision for Alohar’s tech, as expressed to BetaKit by company founders Alvin Lau and Sam Liang, is to help developers create a “Siri for the future,” which is “proactive, rather than reactive.” It’s an ambitious goal, and one that won’t be met without challenges – including convincing users that it’s worthwhile to be sharing the kind of data Alohar’s SDK wants to collect, which includes GPS info, nearby cell tower locations, amount of time spent at locations, and more, with the apps it powers.
It may be a lot to ask, but Alohar has prevailing trends at its back. Users are increasingly comfortable with sharing personal information with mobile devices and web-based services, thanks to Facebook, Google and Apple, along with countless smaller companies that request access to user info daily. The key to getting users on board with data sharing is also making sure they feel well-compensated for sharing their information, and Liang thinks provides the potential necessary for developers to do just that.
“We realized that actually the smartphone has so many sensors in it,” Liang said. “It has the GPS sensor, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass. All these sensors, they can actually learn so much about the user, because you’re carrying your phone around all the time.” Information the phone can gather can even include temperature, the orientation of the user, walking pace depending on vibration patterns picked up by the accelerometer, etc. Liang said the advantage of using that data to learn about users has a huge pay-off in terms of providing them with relevant information about their surroundings and available interactions.
Another key aspect of the Alohar app that Lau says stands apart from other services and DIY persistent location data-gathering apps is the team’s focus on battery conservation. “We do a lot of things like adaptive sampling,” he said. “So we’re not sampling things [like GPS information] on a fixed schedule, we’re really sampling based on how often you change location.”
There’s already strong interest from developers in what Alohar offers – Lau said that they already had over a hundred developer partners signed up, and that was before Robert Scoble posted on Google+ about Placeme and Alohar, which has led both developer and user interest to skyrocket. Liang said that Alohar even had to get new servers up and running to deal with the increased demand.
Both Lau and Liang have grand visions for what developers could accomplish with Alohar, including personal assistant apps that recognize when someone touch down in a new city, and provide recommendations for nearby restaurants, cafes, transportation options and accommodations; health and safety apps that can automatically detect surroundings for workplace safety reporting, or to help communicate to emergency responders; and shopping apps that keep track of nearby deals and offers, notifying users in the background as you shop or wander.
It’s a bold vision, and one that will require that users become comfortable with their connected devices knowing even more about them than they do now. Placeme does it right, in order to avoid controversies like the one recently faced by Path, by encrypting data using SSL when it’s sent from phone to server, and making sure it doesn’t go anywhere else, is anonymized, and its use is fully explained to users. With that kind of transparency, and with benefits like those envisioned by Liang and Lau, users will likely find the pill of sharing increased personal information with apps a lot easier to swallow.