Last night, an app called Color hit the app stores for both iOS and Android. It made a big splash for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its $41 million prelaunch funding. It has all-star founders who have a impressive track records. It launched days after, instead of before, uber tech conference SXSW. Unfortunately for the company, the app can offer a terrible experience for first-time users and appear absolutely useless to those outside of a densely packed, techie mecca like San Francisco or New York.
Let's put all that aside for a moment, however, and look at how Color works, what it does, and why it could redefine mobile, location, and online social interaction. We took some time to talk with Color CEO Bill Nguyen this afternoon and asked him about the tech behind the most talked about app this side of SXSW and here's what he had to say.
Color: Much More Than Photos
Color hit both the iTunes App Store and Android Marketplace last night, bringing with it the promise of real-time, proximity based photo sharing. Using something the company calls a "multi-lens," the app "intelligently identifies nearby smartphones, whether at a local park or at a concert, using advanced proximity algorithms" and instantly shares photos, videos, comments and likes with them.
According to Nguyen, Color is built on some serious technology. The company has six patents pending and sees itself as "much more of a research company and a data mining company than a photo sharing site."
As such, Nguyen explains that Color can ingest and analyze four times the amount of data than Google did in its early days. This, not a tech "bubble" or an early exit, justifies the $41 million investment.
"We have no interest whatsoever in being acquired," said Nguyen. "This is purely what we need to operate. There are real data needs and real capital costs."
What does this tech offer? Among other things, a new way of looking at location and proximity that, while Nguyen wouldn't speculate, could be used in any number of ways including creating a new way of online social interaction.
Research & Data Mining, You Say?
The pictures and videos you take using Color are much more than just that. They're a piece of sharable media around which Color can collect and retain a number of different data points. When you take a picture or video, Color gathers a variety of information. It collects sound levels, Bluetooth readings, light readings, antenna strength, the time - even the direction you're pointing your phone - and more and uses it all to determine your proximity to other users.
This leaves an obvious question - why not use GPS? This is where the tech we've been talking about comes in.
"Lots of people are trying to create location-based services and using GPS," said Nguyen. "The problem with GPS is that it doesn't work."
Color does things differently by collecting these various data points from the phone's sensors and then looking for proximity by looking for identical inaccuracies.
"When you open the camera, that's our big moment," explained Nguyen. "The information we capture in a very short window is probably not that accurate, but when you compare it to lots of other people and it's identically inaccurate, they're probably in the same place."
The problem, of course, isn't how to gather the data, but how to benchmark it, compare it, and accurately determine location and proximity. That's where Color's patent-pending technology comes in, which Nguyen credits DJ Patil, former chief scientist with LinkedIn, with creating. If you've used many GPS-dependent apps, then you know the battery-draining and inaccurate qualities of modern location. Color offers a way to determine location and proximity in such a non-battery draining, accurate manner that an impromptu and "elastic" social graph can be created from the data, without once ever having to purposefully check in.
The 'Elastic' Social Graph
So, is color just another social photo sharing app? No. There are no friend designations in the app.Instead, your friends are people whose paths your own path intersects with, both in location, time and interaction. The more you interact with someone, the more persistent that connection becomes. Over time, it fades away. Ngyuen calls it the "elastic" social graph and he said it's just one of several other ideas the company is working on patenting.
"That's the part I've never gotten about an online social network - to say that someone is your 'friend.' It's rather kind of random. Shouldn't relationships based on technology work the exact same as real life relationships?" asked Nguyen.
In the world of Facebook, once someone is your friend, they're your friend until you return and re-evaluate that relationship, regardless of whether or not you've ever spoken to them again. In reality, the relationship could have fizzled long ago, yet it's still a bond as good as any. With Color's "elastic" social graph, these ties can fade and disappear. Color's ability to accurately determine location and user proximity is what makes this sort of social graph - an implied, impermanent and elastic social graph - even possible.
Isn't It All Just Bubble-Induced Hype?
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "no." Color may have offered a terrible first impression for folks out in the boonies with nobody nearby, but it says it's fixing that. It may have shot itself in the foot in terms of rising to the top of the App Store and raking in the new users. It may have even confused and annoyed the early adopter set with its puzzle-esque and sometimes serpentine design, but if it can really do what it proposes - change the way our social graph works by way of accurate location and proximity data - then none of that may matter.
Oh, and before you ask, Nguyen said they do have a monetization plan. It hinges on advertising and one simple fact.
"Our data is so accurate that we know where you are," said Nguyen.