Home Amber Case & The Invisible Button

Amber Case & The Invisible Button

On a bone-chillingly stormy Austin Friday, I escaped into the warmth of the upmarket W Hotel and sat down for an interview with Amber Case, technology anthropologist and founder of the location platform Geoloqi. In between wolfing down a plate of gourmet macaroni cheese, Case explained her fascination with pinball machines and how Geoloqi helped her locate them. It’s the unpredictable physicality of a pinball machine that Case likes. As a comparison, she disparaged an iPhone version of pinball she once played because the actions of the pinballs were too predictable. She added that it takes 0.75 beers to reach your optimal pinball playing state (many pinball machines these days are located in pubs).

This is all to say that Amber Case has equal parts enthusiasm for precise, measurable technology and the irregular, kinetic world that we live in. For Case, technology is an enabler – but it better get out of the way of our enjoyment of the real world.

Geoloqi is a platform for location-based functionality. According to Amber Case, it’s a “next generation” location platform. For example, one common problem with location apps is that they drain your phone’s battery. Geoloqi solves this through the use of algorithms that make use of “geofences” (virtual perimeters). Instead of leaving the GPS on your phone running all the time, which drains your battery, Geoloqi essentially turns GPS off when it’s not needed.

Amber Case and the author.

How Will Geoloqi Succeed When Others Have Failed?

Geoloqi is a very new company. Along with co-founder Aaron Parecki, Case had been thinking about location since 2010. But it wasn’t until May 2011 that she quit her day job to focus on it. Shortly after, the company got funded. This year Geoloqi launched SDKs and just this week, at SXSW, it announced three new partners: Appcelerator (a mobile development platform), Factual (a global location database) and Locaid (a carrier location platform).

Location isn’t an easy business. Companies such as Simplegeo have not fulfilled their potential. So what makes Amber Case think she has solved the problems that affected first generation location services? “I had watched a lot of geo companies go down,” said Case, “and so I’d been keeping this large notebook of what made them go.” Factors she considered in the notebook included pricing, positioning, time when they came out, feature set. She concluded that the big issues were battery life, setting up the logic for the geofences to trigger, and making a visual editor.

The Quest For The Invisible Button

Amber Case is passionate about next generation interfaces and geofences are a key reason why. She’s particularly interested in interfaces that automate certain tasks. In other words, the technology gets out of the way. While Foursquare made its reputation as the first truly large scale location-based app, it has an enduring problem: people have to physically “check in” to a place. Case said that she’s a big fan of Foursquare and admires what the company has achieved, but with Geoloqi she wants to enable similar apps to have automatic check-ins.

Location apps should be seamless, said Case. With the rapid evolution of Internet devices – particularly smartphones – buttons can now be anywhere on a touchscreen. That reduces friction for the user, because they can touch anywhere on the screen and the right button for their context pops up. Taking that concept a step further, can we have an “invisible button”? Or as Case paraphrased it, “what triggers without having to be there?”

This question fascinated Case when she was at university, but now she thinks she has the answer: “it’s a geofence, it’s location, it’s context.” No longer do you need to click a button to do something on a smartphone, because “suddenly the trigger is you.”

One of Amber Case’s heroes is Ubiquitous Computing pioneer Mark Weiser, who put it this way: “the best interface should get out of the way and let you live your life.”

Next Up: Cyborgs

Ultimately we may see these invisible buttons become part of our bodies. In other words, we’ll become cyborgs. Prior to Geoloqi, Case called herself a “Cyborg Anthropologist” and in a 2008 blog post she defined a cyborg as “a symbiotic fusion of human and machine.”

Cyborgs may be her ultimate vision, but for now Amber Case is content to bring these ideas into smartphone location apps. With Geoloqi, she aims to make smartphones automated and responsive to our context.

Case concluded our interview by saying that “our tools are mental extensions… and they’re evaporating, they’re disappearing.”

I can’t help but agree: once technology disappears from our view and becomes simply an enabler, we will have less friction in our life and enjoy it more. Remember that the next time you pull out your smartphone to check in to somewhere.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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