Marsbot. (aka: some thoughts on the types of things only Foursquare can build)
Today, the New York Times published aquick Q&A with me where I had a chance to hint about the future of location-based services, specifically this idea that location and contextually aware technologies will intersect with everything in our lives. I know a lot of you know about our Foursquare app, the Swarm app, and our developer tools (now used by more than 100,000 developers including Uber, Twitter, Apple, etc.) but figured it may be worth sharing a behind-the-scenes look at some of the other things we’re thinking about and working hard on.
If we had the pleasure of meeting back in 2009 (back when Foursquare was a three-person company; back when the thought that Foursquare might have even *one* million users someday seemed like crazy talk) and you asked me what I wanted Foursquare to be when it grows up, chances are I would have told you my “hipster version of Clippy” story:
“Someday we’re going to make a hipster version of Clippy. One that knows about all the places you go, one that knows about all the places your friends have been, one that’s read every issue of Time Out NY & New York Magazine, one that’s always on the lookout to help you find the next best thing, and one that proactively points you towards those things.”
Building something like this has been a part of our North Star for years, but it turns out building something like this is really hard. You have to know about all the places that people go (so we invented check-ins). You have to be able to use that data to point people to places they’ll love (so we invented personalized local search). You have to plan for a world in which some people don’t want to press a “check in” button every time they go somewhere (so we invented place shapes and background location technology). You have to have the smarts to understand people’s patterns, the way they move through cities, and the things they like and dislike all by understanding the places their phones have been. So we invented that too. This is what we’ve been busy building all these years (in addition to the Foursquare app, the Swarm app, and all the business, enterprise, and advertising offerings that are doing a fantastic job paying the bills).
In the last seven years, our “hipster version of Clippy” idea has gone from crazy and stupid (“no one wants that!”, “Clippy was a disaster!”) to mainstream — and now every tech giant in the space is working on some form of chatbot or AI that will help you find all the answers to life.
These types of bots — Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Now, Facebook M — are great and they’re going to play a huge role in the future, however, the thing that they all have in common is that YOU have to initiate the conversation with THEM. You have to rub the magic lamp that is your phone to get the genie to come out of the bottle.
But at Foursquare we thought, “What if we could do the opposite? What if we could create a bot that summons YOU?” An app you never have to use, but one that can nudge you when you walk into a new neighborhood or whisper in your ear when something amazing is around the corner. We didn’t want to create a Chat Bot to endlessly answer your questions. We wanted to create a Context Bot — one that can understand where you’re standing, learn from the places you’ve been, and predict what you may want to do next. We set out to build something that can listen to the way you move through the city and wake up when it notices something it thinks you should know about. Something that only Foursquare can build. Something that only Foursquare would build.
And so we built Marsbot.
It’s an app. You download it. You open it. And then the idea is you never touch it again. After a few days Marsbot will learn about the neighborhoods you frequent, the paths you walk through the city, the types of places you go to and the habits you have. And every few days after that, Marsbot will send you a text message with helpful suggestions of new places to try, new corners to turn, and new paths to walk. It’s a bot that gets smarter over time, entirely based off where you take it.
Marsbot is very much an experiment — something born out of an R&D lab at Foursquare that doesn’t even have a name. It represents many of the big ideas we have about both location- and contextual-awareness and hints at some of the things you’ll see from Foursquare (and developers building off the Foursquare platform) in the future. And even though Marsbot is still a work in progress, we’re so proud of all the technology we’ve had to build over the past seven years to get here that we wanted to push it out into the world for you all to play with. As of this week, Marsbot no longer has a waitlist and you can download the iOS app from the iTunes Store (sorry, no Android version yet, and Marsbot only works in the USA for now).
And, by the way, these are the types of things we build here at Foursquare. Things that are a little quirky and things that are off the beaten path of what everyone else is doing. And we’re good at it. We’re inventing the future over here — and it’s one of the many reasons why I’m so proud of the company we’ve built.