Foursquare Launches Location-Based Virtual Audio Guide Platform Marsbot for AirPods
Plenty of people walk around wearing earbuds most of the day, even when they aren’t listening to anything. Foursquare is releasing an audio-only virtual assistant platform called Marsbot for AirPods that will play snippets into your earbuds based on your location and let you record your own for others to hear. The idea is to add an audio guide to wherever you happen to be. If you walk in front of a restaurant, you might hear Marsbot recommend the daily special, as described by the chef, or you might reach a scenic view on a trail and hear congratulations from someone who was there earlier.
Marsbot for AirPods acts as a kind of invisible tour guide, only piping up when you walk into precise locations. When you have your earbuds in and the app running in the background, Marsbot will share information about a business, local art, or anything else put on the platform. When stepping into the right spot, the app will share some audio tied to that location. It could be spoken by the artificial voice of Marsbot or by a user who recorded something to play for others who go by.
“There’s an invisible X outside of the front door of [a location], and the audio starts to play when you step into where we draw the X,” Foursquare co-founder and chairman Dennis Crowley told Voicebot in an interview. “We’re designing for a world where people have one AirPod in all day long. You unlock the content by walking around.”
Marsbot for AirPods is available as an iOS app and works with any headphones or earbuds. It will even activate if the iPhone is connected to a car and drives through the right spot. When you pass the tagged spot, the app will lower the volume of any music playing in the earbuds, and any podcast will pause until the clip is over. The app won’t interrupt an audio or video phone call, however. An Android version of the app is in the works for the near future. Crowley said the app is on iOS first mainly because they didn’t have an Android engineer to spare, and “for AirPods” sounded better to the team than a more generic term. Marsbot refers to an earlier version of a similar idea except the information was shared in text form; the decision to make it an audio app was inspired by the very human-like voice assistant in the movie Her, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Crowley demonstrated an early version of the app over a year ago at Betaworks, but the release was delayed for a while this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a weird time to launch, but we didn’t want to sit on it anymore,” Crowley said. “We were originally going to show it at SXSW, but that didn’t work out, for obvious reasons, so we just started dusting it off in August and September.”
The Marsbot for AirPods described by Crowley in his pitch last year focused heavily on cities and having the audio provided by officials from businesses and organizations spoken by the Marsbot voice. The version debuting this week takes that concept and expands it beyond cities while giving people the option to record their own voices to upload to the platform. Foursquare is adding official audio snippets in ten U.S. cities this week, but audio can be added to any location.
“We made tweaks, so it’s not so city-focused, but the content is still tied to places you go,” Crowley said. “You could go on a hiking trail and leave a piece of audio content, and someone walking there would unlock it.”
Location-aware audio that activates without prompting from a user is still an experimental idea. The proactive aspect of Marsbot sets it apart from Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, though. Any voice assistant can answer questions about a location, but none of them alert you when you pass by it without being aware. Though Her is the official inspiration, Crowley compared how Marsbot shares information to a more prosaic tech tool that most users will be familiar with.
“[Virtual] assistants are like a genie, you rub a lamp and get them to come out, but they’re never proactive. One of the only proactive ones is Clippy from Microsoft Office. Everyone thought he was annoying, but the spirit of the thing was right.”
Right now, the emphasis is on making the audio interesting without overwhelming users with too much information. As Crowley pointed out, too many notifications from any app will make people turn off all notifications or just delete the app. What people hear could include historical trivia, an alert that someone you know who also uses the app has been by recently, or even advertisements for nearby businesses. That’s before considering what another person might choose to record.
“Marsbot is the MC of the Foursquare ecosystem, but we decided to let people record their own snippets too. It feels more like a content platform than just an app,” Crowley said. “I have mixed expectations for it. It could be a thousand or ten thousand people who get it, but it’s meant to be an R&D project. It feels really new and interesting.”