With reQall Rover, Your Phone as Personal Secretary

Each day I have the same morning routine: The alarm sounds; I reach over to shut it off, and then I grab my smartphone. Before even jumping out of bed, I’ll likely spend 15 – 20 minutes with my handset, checking app after app to see what happened while I was sleeping and what’s going to happen as the day progresses. A tap here for the e-mail queue to see what’s important and actionable. A tap there for the calendar and appointments for today. Another tap, tap, tap for the weather, Twitter messages and maybe the traffic if I’m planning to venture into town. Sound familiar? If it does, then listen to the sound I heard from my handset this morning: it’s a new Android (s goog) app called reQall Rover that’s meant to turn your smartphone into an intelligent information assistant.

Hello Personal Assistant

ReQall Rover, currently in private beta, is the newest software from the folks behind reQall, a natural language memo service spun off from MIT’s Media Lab, that helps manage personal information. And in under 90 seconds, it just told me some key data about my upcoming day. The weather helps me choose my clothes. I know what my first appointment is, understand what my email queue is like, and I learned that a Facebook friend takes photos of popcorn showers. OK, so maybe that last bit isn’t important, but you get the idea. This Voice Summary feature is available on demand with a button tap or can be scheduled up to three times per day in the software.

I’ve been using the software for nearly a week, and I can already see huge potential because it aggregates important data from the various web services I already use. That may be the best description of how reQall Rover works: combining natural language processing with APIs from third-party services, it delivers personalized information to keep me on track, ranging from upcoming appointments, action items, local trending terms on Twitter, traffic nearby, and more. Upcoming appointments generate information on meeting attendees through LinkedIn and other sources. You can also speak to the software to ask questions as it builds up a database of web links and user-generated answers.

Essentially, reQall Rover is bringing important, personal information to me, instead of me having to open app after app just to get the data I need. In that regard, it shares similarities to Siri, Vlingo and Zazu, all of which are trying to sift through personalized data and bring us relevant information. Given all the data on our smartphones and in the cloud, shouldn’t we expect that from our handsets? Indeed, why haven’t we already seen our smartphones become more efficient assistants?

New Technology Enablers

For that answer, I turned to Don Norman, a twice-retired consultant on human-centered design interaction, book author of “The Design of Everyday Things” and the “Chief Mentor” to reQall. In a phone conversation, he explained that we finally have three key elements that will enable such solutions:

Today we have advanced microprocessors and memory that offer computing capabilities we could only dream of 30 or 40 years ago. We also have fast communications networks so that we can offload heavier processing to the cloud. And finally, we have artificial intelligence and natural language abilities that can put all of the information together. We haven’t seen prior solutions such as reQall Rover due to two constraints. These advanced are all relatively new in terms of hardware; it simply wasn’t possible before. Most importantly, two types of knowledge are needed: technology and psychology, which is a rare combination. The technology has advanced, but we’re only now pairing it with the understanding of what information people need and how they track their day.

So how does all of this technology come together to make a smartphone smarter? As I alluded to before, it’s all in the APIs from services I’m already using. Google knows who and what is important to me based on Gmail and my Google Clendar. My phone knows where I am, so reQall Rover can sift though local information such as Yelp recommendations, nearby Dealmap or Groupon deals, Google Map traffic issues, and where to find the best cup of coffee, no matter where I am and in any weather. Indeed, the more you connect to reQall Rover, the more it learns about you and the better it can assist. For my testing, I connected it to all possible services: Facebook, Google Calendar, Gmail and even the original reQall service.

Privacy and Data Sharing

That action raises an obvious question, however: Do people want to allow one company to use all of our data to provide personalized information and services? In a sense, many of us are doing so today with the companies that we trust. I trust Google with my mail, for example, and I’m already sharing certain data with particular contacts on Facebook. Not everyone will do so, however, and of course, it’s a personal decision. It’s a choice that will gain prominence going forward though as more of our personal data moves online in the future. Clearly there’s a trade-off that each individual has to make: keep all of data offline and private or cautiously share data online with services and gain value from it? And what’s the limit to such data sharing? Google Voice now can learn how I speak, providing greater speech recognition accuracy, but I have to allow it to do so.

APIs to the Rescue!

In terms of data services, reQall is leveraging some of the top-tier data stores through available APIs, but Rover can be an information platform for others as well. Other companies that capture user data can provide an API to reQall for inclusion in the software, then users can choose to personalize their experience with that data. There’s little point to re-creating the wheel when it comes to data, Sunil Vemuri, chief product officer at reQall, told me via a Skype video chat:

We’re good at natural language processing and using it to keep information manageable, but we’re not experts on real estate, for example. Zillow is a leader here, so if we could use an API from their service, reQall Rover could alert me of nearby homes for sale as I drive through a new neighborhood.

The approach makes sense, because no one company is likely to be an expert on all forms of data, although we’re sure to discuss that at our Big Data event later this month. Google may have the most information when it comes to general search, for example, but if I were home shopping, I’d hit Zillow over Google any day. And third-party services that offer an API bring a win-win for everyone: Rover users gain more pertinent information, and companies that provide such data are likely to see more people use the service to make it better in the first place.

In talking to Norman, and given my own interest in home robots and smart homes, I started to see a future for Rover with connected devices as well. I suggested that perhaps another iteration of Rover could interact with my web-connected home thermostat, for example: when my phone “sees” that I’m a mile from home and closing in, it could ping my house to turn up the heat based on the weather and my arrival time. Norman took it one step further, saying: “If Rover saw that you were going to be away for a week, it probably could have already turned your heat off so you don’t waste the energy in the first place.” Now that’s a smartphone future I’m looking forward to. Norman says we’re only at the tip of the iceberg with possibilities, and reQall Rover is primitive compared to what these types of technologies will soon bring.

Beta Invites

Speaking of the future, reQall Rover isn’t yet available to all, as it’s still in private beta. However, we have beta codes for GigaOM readers; the first 100 folks that install the app will have access. Everyone after that will be put on a waiting list. To try reQall Rover, visit this link on your Android phone, install the app and enter the code “gigaom” to activate it.

At the moment, the software is free, as the reQall folks are still undecided on the revenue model for the product. That begs the question: What might you pay as a one-time fee or a monthly subscription to turn your smartphone into an intelligent information assistant? Or is there no price you’d pay to share your personal data with aggregation software?