logo(By Yukari Mitsuhashi, The Bridge) – Working on the weekends or whenever they have free time, Team Houchimin is, from the content of their services to their name itself, quite a unique group. Their service, “Waaaaay!,” a mobile navigation app (available for Android / iOS) designed for people with bad sense of direction, was released at the end of January 2014 and now has more than 600,000 downloads (as of early August 2015). Now the team has released a guide app geared for travelers called Pilot.

Usable wherever you are, even in offline mode

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Pilot can help travelers with things such as discovering new destinations to getting information about local establishments without using roaming data or having to get a SIM card. Being able to function in offline mode is a very big difference between this and already existing apps such as Google Maps or Navitime. Also, it’s often said that one of the biggest struggles of travelers is battery life. By not using battery-draining background operations like GPS and network transmission, Pilot is able to dramatically prolong battery life.

Pilot has 3 main features. The first is its large amount of content. Within the app you can search from over 6,000 restaurants, tourist spots, shopping malls, and other destinations in the supported cities.  For places that are particularly popular with travelers, the app can be used to see photos, price range, business hours and other information.

The second is the ability to search for information regarding train transfers between you and where you’re trying to go by locally storing the data for every train station within the city you are visiting.

The third main feature is, similar to Waaaaay!, rather than looking at a map, travelers can arrive at their destinations just by looking at the direction and the remaining distance. By inputting your desired destination, the app will display the direction to and the remaining distance from the destination. Follow the direction displayed in the app, and when the remaining distance is zero, you know you’ve arrived.

Also useful for travelers who like to wing it

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Pilot was born from a collection of more than 6,500 cases of user feedback from Waaaaay! With Waaaaay!, there was a search history feature that would save the locations you had searched before, so you could access those saved searches without being connected to a network, but even so there were a lot of requests from users to make the service available even when mountain climbing or abroad.

Ryota Ayaki, a member of Team Houchimin, explained:

Unless there’s any obstacle that interrupts radio waves from satellites, GPS signals can be received and it can be used anywhere in the world. Even so, there were a lot of people who misunderstood that it would necessary to have cellphone reception to use GPS. To us, that was common sense, but that wasn’t the case for general society. There were already some navigation apps that had offline capabilities but none of them had really caught on yet, so we thought maybe we can compete in this territory too.

In January of this year, one member of the team traveled to India to collect local data and information on New Delhi and make a prototype. By entering the place you want to go in the form at the top of the screen, the app will tell you the direction and the distance to that point. Other than the feature allowing users to search locally, the rest of the prototype was mostly the same as Waaaaay! Even so, by actually using the app, they recognized that it wasn’t enough to help foreign travelers.

With Waaaaay!, while there are some destinations that users will know to search for like Roppongi Hills or Shibuya Station, for travelers who are overseas, if you haven’t really planned out your trip in detail you might not know what to search for in the first place. So with Pilot they have decided to focus on two areas based on their findings from experiments in unfamiliar locations, bringing the most popular destinations among foreign travelers to the front, and providing guidance for using public transportation.

Starting in familiar territory with a Tokyo version

The direction of the new app was decided around Summer of last year. After which development began in December 2014 through the implementation of Android Wear as well as the improvements made to Waaaaay! itself. According to an acquaintance, in addition to the aforementioned India version, the team has also developed versions of the app for Singapore, Hong Kong, and Barcelona, working out all the kinks and making improvements.

For now, the team has decided to focus their efforts on territory that is familiar to them, the Tokyo area, in an effort to offer a more finely tuned and accurate user experience through trial and error. They have collected data on popular destinations by hand, and for transportation guidance purposes have purchased public transportation data and information for every station and train line in Japan from ekidata.jp. However the one area that is lacking in regards information is the sorting of that data. They have developed a train line guidance feature that combines latitude and longitude data with train line data, and additionally they have increased the speed of their search algorithm and UI display in order to create a more fluid user experience.

Going forward they are planning on developing versions of the app for other cities based on the feedback they will gather from the Tokyo release. Kyoto, London, Taipei, New York, and Paris are all possible candidates. The Tokyo version of the app will be free to use, but they are considering putting a price on future releases. Also they say they’re planning to try promoting the Tokyo release to English speaking users.

When it comes to design and development, Team Houchimin is in their element, but this time with Pilot, their challenge will be that this is not just about reading a map. Their original release of the app featured the actual title misspelled as “Pirot”. Even now there still is one part inside the application that shows the spelling mistake, which may just be for our brief entertainment. Anyway I’m really looking forward to trying this this app out once the international version is released.

You can download Pilot and try it for yourself here.

See the original story in Japanese.