Location-based apps are all the rage today, but according to Omri Moran, CEO of KitLocate, the most popular ones are already out of date. “You can get basic apps that work with all smartphone platforms that tell you where you are and/or broadcast your location, but location has a lot more potential. Retailers, travel app makers, bus and taxi companies, social app makers, and many more have been unable to take advantage of the full potential of location because of the way it is implemented.”
“What KitLocate brings to the table is a different way of looking at location, one that will bring about much more benefit for these service providers and businesses, and enhance the experience for users,” Moran said, in his first in-depth interview on KitLocate, which has already been feted for its technology; the company was awarded $25,000 in 2012 in MasterCard’s first-ever Israel Technology Awards. More recently, KitLocate was enrolled in the local branch of the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator, one of eleven companies chosen out of hundreds for the prestigious spot.
Moran, along with his co-founders Ron Miller, Yoav Cafri and the rest of the team of six engineers, is developing a system that allows a device to monitor user movement all day, activate apps to take actions based on whether or not a person is stationary or mobile, and determine relative locations of on-the-move devices to ensure relevance – all with a savings of as much as 80% of the battery power, said Moran. “The way we do location services, you can have them running all day, all the time, and make it home with plenty of juice left in your device,” he said.
And the way to do that, he said, was to look beyond the GPS chip for location information, collecting data via wifi, accelerometers, and other sensors in the device. “In order to do location properly, you need statistics and information about a user’s habits that you can analyze to keep track of what a person is doing,” Moran said. “This allows apps to anticipate needs and spring into action when necessary, and it also reduces the strain on the battery, because not all sensors have to be running at all times in order to ensure that a user gets the services they want.”
A lot of location services are contextual, said Moran, and as the context changes, the tools used to determine location – and what services should be supplied – change as well. “For example, if a person is driving on a highway and the next exit is ten miles away and we see that traffic in the area is light, we don’t need to check the GPS chip every five seconds to determine location.” Polling can be less frequent; thus, said Moran, the device will use less power, and the battery will last longer.
Once the system sees that a driver has stopped, KitLocate’s system will deactivate the GPS chip, and activate another sensor and/or switch an app, where appropriate, based on context. For example, a driver using Waze, one of the premier geolocation apps, enters destination information in the app and gets back a set of directions, based on traffic information, routes, etc. But say you have to go to an address you can’t drive exactly to, like an apartment on an upper floor; Waze will take you to where the building is located and announce that you have reached your destination – leaving you to figure out what to do next.
“With KitLocate, the system will determine that you have stopped driving and are now moving much more slowly, and figure out that you are now walking,” said Moran. “It can then open up another app, like Google Maps, which will take over and give you walking directions to the exact spot you need.”
Data is another important element in the KitLocate toolkit. The system makes novel use of geofencing, a system that takes specific actions based on where a user is located. Using data the system collects on habits – what stores users frequent, even which sections of a store they are more interested in (i.e., the mens or ladies department), KitLocate allows businesses to proactively offer users services and experiences they could otherwise not offer. The information is collected from the apps that use the KitLocate system, and analyzed by the powerful big data apps.
“For example, there are services based on wifi or Bluetooth that allow stores in a mall to determine if a shopper is close by, and offer him or her coupons,” said Moran. “But what if the store has a partnership deal with a restaurant? If they knew that the user enjoyed the food there, they could offer them a coupon for a freebie at their partner restaurant. But you could only know something like that by keeping track of users’ habits and movements, as KitLocate would have, recording the fact that this customer has been to that restaurant X times in the past few months.”
Another use case could be parsing data about what interests a user and offering them a coupon via a pop-up for a new store or service – one they had not heard about before, but which KitLocate believes will interest them, based on their profile – or activating a social app when others who use the same app and with whom the user has relationships is nearby. Mixing in data, location, and context is a potent brew that has the potential to bring new services and experiences that will benefit many people, said Moran. “It goes beyond defining a place and taking actions based on it,” said Moran. “In our system, the user becomes the place, and all potential services are available at all times.”
A real-life example of KitLocate in action, said Moran, is with Pango, the Israel-developed app that lets you use your cellphone to pay for parking fees. “Pango had a problem, in that users would activate it and forget that they did so, and figure out only hours later that they were paying for a parking space they had left hours before.” While this doesn’t sound like something a business would be too worried about – caveat emptor and all that – Pango was desperately seeking a solution.
“People were very upset and Pango was afraid they were going to lose their customer base,” said Moran. “We set them up with our system and enabled them to turn the app off, and stop charging users, after they had driven away from their spot.” Thanks to KitLocate, Pango now proactively turns itself off after the KitLocate system tells the app that the driver is no longer parked, and thus no longer needs Pango.
KitLocate makes other assumptions as well, and it’s those assumptions, based on data, movement, location, speed, etc. – all the elements that a device’s sensors record – that allows such a dramatic battery savings, to the extent, said Moran, that a KitLocate-equipped device uses as little as 1% of its battery power per hour, even with multiple location, wifi, and bluetooth apps running.
Kitlocate, for example, will close off all of a device’s sensors when it determines that a device has not been moved for a long time and the time is between 9AM and noon. In that case, it’s most likely that the user has laid his or her device on a table and is at work; after all, that’s what happens every day, Monday through Friday. By “knowing” in advance that the user is at work at those hours, and that the phone is unlikely to be moved, “we can turn off sensors or increase the amount of time we poll them to see if there are any changes, thus saving battery time,” said Moran.
Besides Pango, KitLocate has large customers in Israel and abroad, and the list of large customers is likely to grow in the coming weeks, Moran said.
For most end-users, the battery savings promised by KitLocate will be reason enough to want to have it installed on their device. But those savings were a happy by-product of Moran’s determination to produce something of value to users. “We started out a few years with an app that would report discounts for users at nearby stores,” he said. “The app worked great, except that it killed the battery within a couple of hours.” As a result, Moran, an engineer, together with co-founders Miller and Cafri, made an in-depth study of GPS, along with the other sensor devices in most cellphones, and came up with KitLocate.
Moran knows KitLocate may sound a bit Big-Brotherish to some, but for those worried about even further losses of privacy in an already very un-private world, he has some soothing advice. “Of course we are in strict compliance with all laws regarding privacy, but the law is one thing and user perception is something else. Some things can be perfectly legal, but offensive to some people.”
For them, Moran plans to recommend that devices, platforms, or apps that use his technology include a “kill” button, very prominently displayed, so that a user can easily opt-out if they want to. “But we believe that users are going to want to use this, because they are going to get a lot of value out of it, and they see that we respect their wishes and needs.”