Do You Know Where Your Child (or Husband or Girlfriend) Is? Whereoscope Can Tell You

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of companies funded this summer by Paul Graham’s Mountain View, CA-based startup incubator, Y Combinator.

Every day millions of people check in or submit geotagged updates using mobile-friendly services like Foursquare, Gowalla, Twitter, SCVNGR, Google Latitude, and Facebook Places, sharing their locations with the whole social-networking world. But who really needs this information? That’s a question the founders of Whereoscope had to confront almost as soon as they arrived at Paul Graham’s startup school this May.

“When we first entered Y Combinator, our idea was all about being a Google for people’s locations,” says Mick Johnson, who started the company with fellow Australian James Gregory. “We built some really cool pieces of technology, where we’d find strangers nearby, or you’d type somebody’s name into your phone and we’d tell you where they are. But the key question that Paul kept asking us was who are the users who really care about this. The answer, although it took us a little while to realize it, was that there isn’t anyone.”

Or at least, there aren’t enough people interested in the locations of random strangers to build a business around the idea. On the other hand, Johnson and Gregory, realized, there are a few key people in everyone’s lives whose locations do matter.

“I think the watershed moment was when I was chatting with my girlfriend,” Johnson recounts. “She works extremely hard, she can’t see me that often, and we don’t live together. She said it made her feel better to know where I was. I said ‘How much would you pay for a service that told you where I was?’ and she said ‘Five dollars.’ And then I said, ‘How much would you pay for a service that tells you where your kids are?’ and she said $10 a month, straight away.”

Multiply $10 per month by the millions of families with multiple smartphones, and you have a potentially interesting business. So that’s what Whereoscope built.

Whereoscope MapThe startup’s first product, launched in early August, is an iPhone app that taps into the device’s GPS- and Wi-Fi-based positioning system, sending users alerts about the locations of family members whose phones are also running the app. Parents, for example, can set the app to tell them when a child arrives at or leaves a certain place, such as their school or sports practice. Users can also set the app to tell them when a family member approaches within a certain distance. If you’re cooking dinner and waiting for your spouse to get home from work, for example, Whereoscope can send you an alert when they drive across an adjustable boundary line (called a “geofence” in the location business) anywhere from 1 mile to 20 miles away.

For now, the app only works when everyone in the family has an iPhone with the latest iOS 4 operating system, which is capable of running the Whereoscope app continuously in the background. The startup is waiting for App Store approval on an updated version of the app that also works on iPads and iPod Touch devices, and Johnson says Android and BlackBerry versions are planned.

The service is free at the moment, but the company plans to experiment with fees that could range up to $10 per month per phone. That’s roughly the same price charged by AT&T’s FamilyMap, a similar service that lets users of AT&T’s cellular network locate the phones of family members on a digital map.

As of last week, 3,500 people were using the service, and the number is increasing16 percent per week on average, according to Johnson, who taught English in Japan for several years before going to work for a Sydney-based security company called Sensory Networks. That’s where he met Gregory; the two decided to strike out on their own after scoring an initial success with Gasbag, an iPhone app they developed to show drivers gas prices at nearby filling stations. (Speaking of Japan, a “large proportion” of the app’s users are in that country, Johnson says, so there’s also a Japanese version of the app.)

As the vigorous discussion around new services like Facebook Places shows, any mobile or Internet application that relates to location raises a host of social and technical questions, not the least of which are about privacy. I plied Johnson about a number of these issues.

Are there really a lot of families where everyone, including the kids, has an iPhone? “There is certainly an argument that kids don’t yet have smartphone, but the data we’re getting from people now is dispelling that notion,” Johnson says. “Kids are getting phones younger and younger, and more often than not they are getting the phones they want. There are some interesting effects where parents are giving their two-year-old iPhone 3GS to their kids when then get an iPhone 4.”

GPS is a battery hog—how do you keep a location-based app running all the time without draining the phone’s battery? “The biggest problem is getting 24-by-7 accuracy without killing the battery,” Johnson acknowledges. “We think we have come a long way on this. The real trick is to treat this as an optimization problem. If you are driving up Highway 101, you wife doesn’t actually need to know that you have moved every 5 seconds. She only really cares when you’re leaving, when you are about to arrive, and when you’re nearby. Sampling at exactly the right time, and only for as long as you need to get the right location fix to provide the right information, gives you the right tradeoff. We only turn the GPS on for 5 to 10 seconds at a time, at the right times. If you’re staying in the same place, the background tasks don’t wake up until you start moving.”

How do you get beyond the early adopters with an app like this—the families where the parents are tech geeks? “The families using our service aren’t unusually techie families,” Johnson answers. “Some are. But we have one user in Boston who is a police officer with a young daughter, and he just wants a little extra security. He’s not a techie guy, just a normal, concerned parent. There are a lot of those out there who have iPhones right now.”

How do kids feel about having their parents monitor their locations? “We’re specifically looking at 11- to 14-year olds,” says Johnson. “It’s not a case where you have a 17-year-old high school senior who is maybe staying out late. Those kinds of privacy tradeoffs are much harder to negotiate, and the use case is not so clear. But when you have a child who has spent most of their time with you or in school, and now they’re at the age where they are starting to become independent, that is when you have these classic tradeoffs—‘Okay, you can go to Bobby’s by yourself but I want you to call me when you get home.’ That’s pretty standard stuff, we just make it easier. From the kid’s point of view, it’s actually less work for them. They don’t have to call when they get home. They don’t have to call to find out how far Mom is from picking them up. It all just works.”

Wouldn’t it be easy for kids to turn off the app if they don’t want to be tracked—or does it have some kind of childproof password protection? “We have built it to allow kids to turn it off, and the reasoning behind that is that we want to make it a collaborative thing between the parent and the child,” says Johnson. “This draws on my background as a teacher. If you set things up where the kids and the parents are battling over control, the parent can’t really win. If you set it up as a collaborative network, where the kid feels they are engaged and involved, the psychological motivation is quite different. Kids are not inherently devious or malicious. They are forgetful, absolutely. But we are not trying to solve the case where you can’t convince your kid to tell you where he is.”

What about location privacy between adults? Is society really ready for the idea that we’ll all be trackable all the time? “As to the broader question about whether we as a society will become more relaxed about privacy in general, I honestly don’t know,” Johnson says. “When you talk to women, in particular, about the concept of sharing their location with anyone other than their partner, that’s an elephant that just doesn’t want to move. But one of the reasons we are going in this direction is that the precedent is clear. People have been doing this as a service from their cellular carrier. And the demand has always been there. This is a task that every family does in some way every day. You call to say when you’re getting home or when you’re going to practice. There just hasn’t been a really easy way to do that. So we hope the wind is at our back in terms of the technology and also social acceptance.”

How do you turn something like this into a big business? Won’t you need a big war chest for marketing? “We could go any of three ways,” says Johnson. “We could go with zero dollars and build this ourselves—we think the path to revenue is extremely close. Or we could take a small round and prove it out and build gradually. Or [we could] take a large round and really go. The interest to date has been phenomenal. Almost every investor we talked to, most of them have kids and they say ‘I can see this becoming huge.'”

Johnson sums up: “We honestly think this is a billion-dollar company. We think this is worth $10 [or $20 or $30] a month to families, and we think we can get 10 million families on it, no problem. We think eventually we can get 100 million families on it. The technology will be different, and we’ll have to scale to different platforms, and there will be different privacy requirements in different cultures. But for most people, at some stage in their lives, we see this almost as being another form of insurance. When you get a car, you get insurance. When your kids get to the age where they get their first phone, you get Whereoscope for a couple of years.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Do You Know Where Your Child (or Husband or Girlfriend) Is? Whereoscope Can Tell You”

  1. I’m surprised by the suggested price point and by the methodology used to back into the market opportunity. We should put similar technology in shoes. Millions and millions of people wear shoes and you could have an interesting business.

    The app can be easily duplicated and duped and I’d predict app adoption rates never exceed 10,000 users. There will be even fewer paid users. The value prop is a tough sell from where I’m sitting.