Life360 says it has figured out how to provide always-on location services without draining your smartphone’s battery.
That’s a significant step forward, because most GPS services are power-hungry. Location services aren’t a problem if you’re tracking an hour-long run, but if you want to use an app that tracks you throughout the day, you’ll probably find your phone runs out of juice far earlier than usual.
Life360 lets you keep tabs on the whereabouts of your family members. You can set up geofences around a variety of locations, such as your home or work, and it will automatically alert family members when you enter or leave one of those places. With this service, Life360 could replace those ubiquitous “Where R U?” texts, allowing parents to know where their children are, and allowing children to get on with their lives uninterrupted, gosh.
“Does it drain my battery?” is always one of the first questions Life360 hears from potential users, and in the beginning, the answer was yes. In fact, it was so bad that in the first year of availability, Life360 got only 5,000 users, was turned down for venture capital funding, and got a bunch of bad reviews in the app store.
That may have been a discouraging way to start a business, but it lit a fire under the founders.
“We raised money back in 2009 when things were really, really tough. There were a lot of people there that were like, ‘Oh you know your acquisition is nothing … you’ll be gone in a couple days, like, look at Formspring, look at X random hot company. It’s been fun to outlast them,” said Alex Haro, Life360’s chief technology office in an interview with VentureBeat.
The biggest reason always-on location apps drain your battery is because it takes power for GPS to get an accurate read on your location.
But Haro, together with Chris Hulls, Life360’s chief executive, figured out that you don’t always need to have GPS on to know where someone is.
The company’s technology looks at a number of data points in addition to GPS to determine where you are: Wi-Fi signals, cell tower signals, and the geofences users set up. It takes data to know when you’re inside a geofences, but once you’re there, the company can use that information to make sure the GPS doesn’t get turned on.
The same process happens when you’re in any known place. If you’re sitting at work, it will shut off GPS and listen for signals that you’re changing locations. Once you’re in motion, it will flip the GPS on — the only time your phone will actually take the big battery hit that comes with using GPS.
The system is smart, too. For example, it figures that at 2 a.m. you’re likely sleeping and at home, so it ignores spurious location readings based on cell tower signals, which are notoriously inaccurate. If your phone starts rapidly connecting to a bunch of different Wi-Fi signals, it concludes you might be driving or on a train, and thus on the move.
But that leads to one stipulation: the location technology simply doesn’t work as well if you don’t have Wi-Fi turned on.
“When people turn Wi-Fi off, the performance is really bad. People do that for whatever reason,” said Hulls in an interview with VentureBeat. “Wi-Fi in San Francisco is critical.”
However, Wi-Fi isn’t always Life360’s best friend. The app gets tripped up if you’re connected to a mobile hotspot. Because the Wi-Fi is moving with you, it makes the app believe you’re sitting in one place, but you really could be connected while on a moving train.
Hulls would not otherwise elaborate on how Life360 knows when and where you are when not in a geofence, saying the technology is proprietary. But if you’re a mobile developer, take heart. The company is likely not going to keep this one under lock and key. Hulls says the company is toying around with the idea of licensing the tech to those who don’t want to spend the time figuring out how to do it on their own.
“It’s the high level idea now, people approach us all the time. We’ve been offered even a few million dollars to do stuff with it,” said Hulls. “We did not mean to be a geo-company it was just kind of built out of necessity.”
In our tests, we found the battery life actually did last while running Life360 in the background. However, there were some glitches with Android phones, in particular the HTC EVO. Life360 acknowledged these issues, saying a bug was being fixed soon.
Aside from bug fixing and location-conquering, Life 360 has gone back to those VC non-believers from when it first launched. Hulls says VCs have short memories. While Life360 could barely get through the door of VC firms in 2009, it has now taken on $12 million in funding, with its most recent $3 million round coming from BMW and others.