Thanks to Apple’s intelligent assistant Siri, virtual personal assistants have started to pop up on users’ smartphones. To add to that trend, Seattle-based startup ARO Inc. is launching its second project, Saga, an intelligent companion for iPhone, out of stealth today. Saga uses ambient location to automatically monitor users’ activities, providing everything from tracking, to recommendations, to automatic check-ins.
Saga automatically collects location and behavioral information about a user’s daily activities, from the route they took on their daily commute, to how long they spent in the office, to where they went to grab dinner that evening. Users are rewarded with experience points for their different activities, which right now aren’t tied to real-life rewards (but conceivably could be in the future). “Saga is an intelligent companion that is designed to help you get more out of life,” co-founder Andy Hickl said in an interview. “What we want to build is the first of a new generation of apps that are out there looking out for you and trying to anticipate what you might need to get stuff done on a daily basis.” That might be where to eat in a new city, finding out why traffic is backed up, or the best route to take somewhere.
Hickl believes that Saga’s biggest value proposition is giving a blow-by-blow account of where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing in those places, without having to check in. They use that information to make guesses about what a user is doing, and what they might need at any given point in time. “The idea is that all of that put together is cues that we can use to surface different information.”
When users open the app, the app displays information about where they are, and starts to track their location data (Hickl said it needs 48-72 hours to start making recommendations and providing analytics). Users can view a summary of how they spend their time, and see auto-generated visualizations of things like how where a user hangs out most (aka 40 percent at work, 50 percent at home). The company uses the data they track within the app, and pulls data from third-party APIs like RunKeeper and Fitbit.
Along with providing a snapshot of how users spend their time, the app wants to be able to recommend activities they can do, real-world events to attend, and media to consume. Though those media recommendations won’t be associated with specific shows and movies at launch, they will be building that in. “It’s one thing for us to tell you to go home, it’s another thing for us to tell you to go home and watch True Blood on demand,” Hickl said. The app will also provide notifications, for example alerting users to breaking news, and nearby places.
Though the app is free, Hickl said providing branded recommendations is something they see happening down the road. “If you can be an honest source for recommendations… then you allow people to make a knowledgable choice, and make sure you’re not shoving something down their throat,” Hickl said.
There are other apps attempting to use ambient location technology in order to offer users information about their schedules or surroundings, things like sports scores and travel details. Hickl said Google Now is the closest thing to what they’re building, and Apple’s Passbook feature is also attempting something similar, though it won’t be available to users until the launch of iOS 6 this fall. “We were really excited when Google Now came out, because we said yay, another believer in the space – it’s validation that you don’t have to search for everything,” Hickl said. “We think we have a leg up in terms of the core data that we understand about you and that we expose to you about where you’ve been and what we done, and that we know a little more about you than anyone else at this point.”
As with other ambient location apps like Highlight, privacy is a big issue for users who are auto-sharing their location and daily activities. Hickl maintains that even when they do monetize, they will never sell users’ data, they’ll delete user data if they request it, and they’ll be transparent about why they’re making recommendations to users. Another criticism of ambient technology is battery life, and Hickl said they were originally scheduled to launch in May 2012, but he wanted to improve the battery consumption to its current 2.5-3 percent per hour rate.
ARO, the company behind Saga, was founded in June 2011 and launched the Bubbleator app for Android in October 2011, a live wallpaper for Android that turns a user’s home screen into a live feed of updates, including weather, text messages and missed calls, and social media updates. While Saga is only available as a free iOS app for now, the company will be releasing an Android app soon.
Saga’s biggest challenge, aside from getting users to download their app as opposed to using built-in ambient software like Google Now and Passbook, will be getting users over the privacy concerns often associated with ambient technology, which has been called the scariest tech trend of 2012.