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The amazing, inspiring and scary world of ambient apps

By Brian S Hall / March 17, 2014

The amazing, inspiring and scary world of ambient apps

A class of apps, christened “ambient apps” by the blogosphere, are endowing mild-mannered smartphone users with what might have passed for superpowers a few years ago. They work by keeping your smartphone’s mic, GPS and even its camera listening, watching and seeking out every signal coming from your surroundings.

In many ways, ambient apps are a logical step in the evolutionary process of mobile devices. For some, however, they press too hard against our personal space, intrude upon our most precious moments and deliver marketers far more about ourselves than we care to divulge.

Ambient apps are the new magic

Hold your smartphone near a radio, and almost instantly, the Shazam app can tell you exactly what song is playing and where to buy it. With a few taps, that mystery song can gain heavy rotation on your phone or mp3 player. Does Shazam now know more about you than you wish? Probably not.

However, what if a similar app helped you identify someone speaking at the table across from you and automatically take you to their LinkedIn profile without their awareness? That could definitely be considered a breach of privacy, and that’s the power, promise and pitfall of ambient apps. They may seem like magic, but in the wrong hands, they can make us deeply uncomfortable.

Another fascinating/unsettling example involves the aviation industry. Point your smartphone at the sky the next time a plane flies overhead, and Flightradar24 can tell you not only the make and model of the plane, but also where it departed from, where it’s headed, how fast it’s going, how high it is and more.

It’s an inspired combination of smartphone hardware, mapping, and real-time access to massive data storages. Flightradar24, tracks every commercial flight, mixes that with data from the airlines, then matches it all with the GPS coordinates from your phone, ultimately determining what plane you must be looking up at.

Listen up

Ambient means “of the surrounding area or environment.” People typically think of ambient noise as a whirring fan or the soothing sounds of ocean waves. In fact, the bustle of people, the lights overhead, the jets above us and all the other numerous sights and sounds we’re exposed to on a constant basis contribute to ambient ‘noise’– even as our brains mash it all up into a single, cacophonous entity ready to be ignored. Ambient apps, however, can uncover unique value from all the racket.

Heard, for example, constantly runs in your phone’s background, using the mic to continuously record, then abandons all it hears if you don’t choose to save a snippet of the recording. If a statement or sound catches your interest, simply tap the app and it’s recorded. Even if you don’t intend to use Heard, it’s important to know that it exists before that “off the record” comment about your boss or significant other becomes a piece of incriminating evidence.

Some ambient apps even watch or listen to you while you sleep. HappyWakeUp is an alarm that uses your smartphone mic to monitor your slumber. If you’re in a deep sleep, it leaves you blissfully in dreamland. Start tossing and turning, however, and HappyWakeUp will seize the opportunity to ease you out of your sleep, as long as it’s close to your predetermined wakeup time.

An app called Audio Aware, expected to be released within a few weeks, uses the smartphone’s mic to listen for specific sounds that could be indicative of danger, such as a screeching tire, and then quickly alerts the user before they become a part of the problem. This could prove of great benefit to those hard of hearing. It could also be used to aid that oblivious smartphone user, aimlessly walking across the street with their music blasting through their ear buds.

Even cooler, Audio Aware’s “artificial ear” can be programmed to listen to a host of personally relevant sounds. For example, the app can be trained to listen for specific birds flying overhead, letting birdwatchers know when their favorite winged friend is nearby. There’s also the potential for apps like Audio Aware, to hear sounds that you, a mere mortal, cannot.

The Shopkick app cleverly takes advantage of this human failing by sending out inaudible sounds that only your smartphone can understand. Walk near the store and your Shopkick app hears the call, which then notifies you of special deals. You make a purchase and everybody wins. Soon, you likely won’t even need the Shopkick app. Apple’s new iBeacon service works similarly. Except, iPhone users don’t even need to have a store’s app running. Downloading it onto their phone is sufficient – for now.

Failures and successes

Ambient apps began to take hold in 2011 and came into prominence in 2012 when several of them debuted at the popular SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, TX. These apps eschewed the word “ambient” for the more privacy-friendly term, “serendipity.” Apps such as Highlight and Glancee ran continuously in the background, seeking out serendipitous connections. If you were near a friend, colleague or someone you follow on Twitter or Facebook, these apps could instantly alert you and spur an impromptu meeting. However, there were several problems with their introduction, and not all of them were technical in nature.

At the time, tens of millions of people, even techies, weren’t regularly using Facebook or Twitter, nor were they leaving massive chunks of personal data about themselves with every check-in. Then there was the issue of battery life, which continues to plague users and developers even to this day. Originally, these continuously-running apps had the reputation of being battery hogs, but today’s mobile operating systems have greatly reduced that drain.

Much of the limitations of ambient apps have quickly been overcome, and despite TechCrunch’s proclamation in 2013 that the “ambient location” app craze has passed, it seems almost certain that a new, even more powerful crop of ambient software will soon emerge. Consider that Foursquare recently gobbled up $35 million in additional venture financing, in part based on the promise of ambient awareness.

The new Foursquare focus takes advantage of the ambient-aware capabilities of today’s smartphones not by continuously monitoring sounds, but by the user’s physical location. Foursquare combines its awareness of your whereabouts with the billions of check-ins and user recommendations of stores, clubs and restaurants in your immediate area, and then gives you suggestions based on your tastes.

With great power comes great responsibility

The next evolutionary phase of ambient apps will likely integrate their ‘awareness’ of where we are and what is happening around us, with highly personal contextual data like who we are and what we need. Imagine walking past a restaurant and your smartphone — using GPS to know where you are, social media to know who you’re with and your fitness tracker to know how many calories you’ve burned — flashes a notification on your screen telling you that there’s a great salad shop nearby with plenty of seating.

The magic of ambient apps is only beginning, enabled by the profound levels of connectivity with people, data and things that our smartphones are just beginning to foster. As awesome and borderline magical as ambient apps may be, we must remain vigilant about what all we are communicating. Even the minutia of life carries value and every moment is precious. Ambient apps know this, and so should we.

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