Raj Singh leads me to the door of a dark room and gestures for me to go inside. It’s a large open area with a floating catwalk that leads to the center of the room, with foamy spikes jutting out from every inch of the floors and wall. It looks like a cross between Cerebro from X-Men and the meeting chamber of the Galactic Senate in Star Wars. (Two geeky references in one sentence. And they said it couldn’t be done.)
It’s an anechoic chamber, a soundproof room used to detect how different signals will interact with a piece of technology or machinery. The site is tucked in the middle of the famous SRI International, or Stanford Research Institute, campus in Menlo Park, where Singh spun out his company, Tempo.
It is this scientific funhouse that spawned the likes of Technicolor, inkjet printing, and Siri. As we tour the grounds, Singh, who served as SRI’s entrepreneur in residence before starting Tempo, talks about the promise of Siri as a “do engine” before Apple got its hands on it. He says that with his product, which launches today, and is another artificially intelligent assistant, he hopes to fulfill that promise. The variant, though, is that while Siri is a general-purpose bot, his focuses on improving just one thing: the calendar.
To use it, you connect Tempo to the calendar app on your phone, your contact book and, optionally, your email account. First, Tempo tries to get to find out the type of calendar entry person you are: the type that writes, “John, 11am.” Or, “John Smith, founder, CoolNewApp, 11am, coffee, Starbucks, San Francisco, SOMA.” If you’re the former, Tempo can still help by scouring your email to pull up the relevant info. It can also suggest a meeting place, pull up John’s contact, and pull up any relevant emails or documents. You can also choose to send an automatic text if you’re running a few minutes late.
Particularly helpful: if you’ve got a conference call scheduled, you don’t have to dig around your inbox for the dial-in bridge and access code. It finds it and dials with one button push.
Singh says he conceived the idea before coming to SRI, while working at Skyfire, a mobile cloud solutions company. After starting out as a software guy, he moved into business development and all of a sudden his schedule exploded, and he found it exhausting to keep up.
There are, of course, other personal assists that have generally been well received. There’s Google Now for Android, and Grokr for iOS. But Singh thinks these apps are too noisy. He references what he calls the “Cheerios problem”: You wake up and have a bowl of cereal for breakfast. The app notices it is Cheerios, and pushes you a coupon for Cheerios; not the most meaningful alert in the world, Singh says. Tempo’s narrow focus on the calendar keeps the unwanted noise at bay.
Like all personal assistant software, it takes some time for Tempo to get to know you. It gets a little wonky when you’ve got a meeting with someone inside your company who you correspond with often. Picking out the relevant emails for that particular meeting is difficult when you’ve emailed with that person approximately 3,472,904 times before. Tempo ranks its selections by number, leading with what it thinks is most prevalent.
As the company grows, it hopes to monetize by adding premium features, or going the white label route for enterprise companies, building calendars for their teams.
While tackling just one area helps make the app less bothersome, focusing on just the calendar also has a subtler, psychological benefit. People get freaked out when artificial intelligence works too well, and it gets to know them too intimately. In the field, it’s called the “uncanny valley.” But because Tempo is billed as a productivity app, it tends to sidestep that problem. “It doesn’t come across as creepy because the calendar is nothing new. It’s just more convenient,” says Singh.
That’s helpful, especially when it comes from a place where technology can be so mind-blowing. After all, it was built yards away from a freaking anechoic chamber.
[Image courtesy: fczuardi]