Bill Killoran is a developer at Sonic Notify, a spinoff company from design firm Densebrain. This is normally the point where I explain what someone’s company does, but frankly, I’ll leave that to Bill in our interview. It’s an impressive brand new technology that lets companies interact with people in an innovative way, I’ll say that much. I met these guys originally at a Meetup fundraiser for HackNY during Internet Week. A little after that, Bill and I got to catch up in my favorite manner: over beers. For more about Sonic Notify, check out their blog.
So all the guys at Sonic Notify worked at Densebrain together. How did Sonic Notify come to be?
We had this one proprietary product from Densebrain called NYCMate. It’s a really good subway locator that had timetables and other stuff. We basically used crowdsourcing to predict when trains were going to show up at stations because the MTA’s timetables were never really accurate. So we had this really good crowdsourcing system, it already worked great. But we wanted to take it further. So something Alex (ed. note: Alex Bell, co-founder and inventor of their technology) thought of was to put these little beacons that would emit sound in buses. When buses reached certain points, you would have listener beacons that would hear that sound and broadcast across the system it had arrived. So we had the same crowdsourcing engine for buses that we did for subways. Unfortunately, the MTA wasn’t crazy about it and wouldn’t do it. So we decided to take it in a new direction.
It’s a shame. It would have been totally passive, simple, and cheap. Just put it on the bus and at the listening spot. Whatever, that didn’t work. So we took it to the supermarket aisle. Jon (ed note: Jonathan Glanz, CEO and co-founder) and Alex pitched the idea to Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati and they loved it. We saw it going somewhere, so we wound down Densebrain as a development and design agency, and wound up Sonic Notify. We officially became a company in late fall.
So I understand the general idea of the technology, but can you talk about your actual product?
There’s two main parts. Something emits a frequency above the human auditory range and basically just beeps out a code. That code is a pointer to information on our servers. Second, you have a device listening to it, like a phone or computer. The listening device says “I just heard this code, what does it mean, what do I do?” It retrieves information for our server, and you can receive a lot of information and instructions that way. A lot of people get confused because they think we’re actually encoding a tremendous amount of information via sound, but it’s really just pointers. Otherwise it’d be totally inefficient.
You guys have had some pretty strong partnerships already. You’ve worked with Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Coachella, and MADE at New York Fashion Week. What have you learned from that?
We learned that everyone loves the idea, is really crazy about it, and sees the potential. But not everyone has the development team to pull aside and execute what they want to do with it. Our original intention was just provide the Software Development Kit (SDK) and development teams would do their thing with it. We’re kind of in an agency position again though. People would come to us with an idea and we execute it for them because they didn’t have the team or resources. It worked out great because of our Densebrain experience. Personally, in the future, I’d like to be less of an agency and more of the technology guys behind it.
One of my initial impressions was how similar this was to Minority Report, where there was an instant identification between advertisers and people based on eye recognitiion. Is something like that possible in Sonic Notify? Could a device return information to your beacons?
No, but that’s a positive though. We want our sensors to be dumb. One emits a frequency, one receives. Your phone never broadcasts anything unless it’s part of the application that includes our SDK. There’s no information that you get from us that you couldn’t get from part of Xcode or whatever SDK you’re developing in. When people hear the word inaudible, or subliminal, and think “Oh my god, we’re being attacked!” But we’re not really that evil.
So you’ve officially been a startup for over half a year. A constant refrain I hear is how helpful and friendly the New York startup community is. How’s your experience in it?
It totally is a community. I’ve been going to Meetups basically every week for the past year and a half. It’s a lot of fun to see what people are up to and what they’re doing. You say “Oh, I remember being in that exact situation that startup was in.” At Densebrain, we saw almost every staggering high and every crumbling low a startup goes through. But if we haven’t dealt with it before, I’m sure there’s someone else at some Meetup who has. It’s really exciting.
What are your favorite Meetups?
I like the more esoteric ones. I’m a member of Ladies Who Code, just to be ironic. I’m a big fan of New York Tech Meetups and mixers, because they’ve got free booze and good ideas.
I saw the guys at Sonic Notify were at TC Disrupt’s Hackathon. How was that experience?
It was okay. It was a lot more intense than we thought it would be. We thought we would spend eight hours there, come home, and just show up in the morning. Not even close. We wound up working to the last second. We tried to use our SDK in another product. The problem is Sonic Notify is really complicated. Because you only have sixty seconds to pitch your product, it’s tough to describe our technology and product to people in that short time frame. You try to downplay it, but even though our idea was cool, we just didn’t have enough time to present it.
What was your idea?
Contagion. Disrupt Hackathon had this thing where companies would give prizes to people who used their API. There was this one company called Mobli that would give ten thousand bucks to whoever used their API in the most creative way. Their company statement had an image that really resonated with us. You’re at a concert, you have horrible seats and can’t see anything, but you can see everyone’s holding up their phones. You think, wouldn’t it be cool if I could everything they see all at once? So we thought up Contagion, something similar to a virus.
Basically, what it would do, is if your phone heard a Sonic Notify signal, it would be “infected.” It would broadcast that frequency in turn, and then take a picture every couple seconds of whatever you were looking at. In effect, it would make Mobli’s vision a reality. If you were at this concert, someone would start the contagion, and everyone’s phones would take pictures and post to a photo wall every couple seconds You’d get this really colorful snapshot of this entire moment of time spread across everyone’s devices. It just needs more than sixty seconds to explain and more than twenty-four hours to develop. It was like a mosaic of a specific moment. This is where Sonic Notify shines. You link a moment to a specific position. No other SDK or core location framework in the iPhone can do this like we can. It was really exciting, didn’t turn out as well as we thought, but it was fun to do. We’ll do it again. We have all these cool ideas, and never an excuse or time to do it. I’m going to try and enter more hackathons and encourage everyone there to use our SDK.
What’s the most creative use of your technology you’ve seen?
We had this one idea for a show we’ll call “Procedural Crime Investigation,” something similar to a C.S.I., on like CBS or something. It’s a detective show, where they have to find a murderer, etc. J.O.B., one of our guys at Sonic Notify, came up with this amazing design wireframe, where you basically have a companion application and you help the detective find the murderer. And you can only contribute if you watch the show at a certain point in time when our beacon comes into play. The concept is cool. You get info as the people in the show get it.
I’m also a fan of what we did in Fashion Week. You got real time looks as the models walked. I can’t think of a situation where something was this to the second. You can get a professional photo within a second of it being shot on the runway.
I can see a world where Sonic Notify takes off as a way of engaging consumers. How do you prevent it from becoming spam or too overwhelming?
Well, you can’t participate if you don’t have the application or if you’re not opted-in. Your phone needs to be listening for you to get any alerts. We do have some tricks so your phone only listens at the right point in time. We have location triggers, so you’ll only listen if you’re within a certain radius, or time triggers. But really, it’s up to the people who develop the applications to not overwhelm their users. If it doesn’t work, users will delete their app. Sonic Notify can’t control that.
Who’s your biggest personal influence?
I’m a big fan of Ben Nadel who works at a Startup called InVisionApp, which is a prototype development company. You can create mockups that are really functional really quickly. Just he loves jQuery and loves blogging about jQuery and I also love JQuery. I’m a big fan of rapid prototyping. I think they’re a really cool company that does something I wish more people would do. I work with designers that make quick wireframes, basically just gray and black boxes, saying this need this, that needs that. Then after a week or so, they’ll actually hammer out what it looks like. InVision does both at the same time. Check it out, it’s fun.
Alright, maybe my favorite question. What’s the best startup you know out there?
I’m sorry, but we’re the actually the coolest guys around. We’re cooler then a cucumber wearing sunglasses. I don’t think anyone else is as ballsy or gutsy as we are.