Mixing storytelling and science, Saga launches as a smartphone sidekick

saga app launchWhen the iPhone 4S first debuted, its big sell was Siri. The assistant app was supposed to be the first realization of AI technology, the best way to utilize what the smartphone could do. Of course we soon learned that all the celebrity endorsements in the world couldn’t make Siri what it wasn’t, and it’s been an often-mocked, largely disappointing feature.

It’s due for an upgrade, which we’ll likely see in the iPhone 5, but until then there’s something of a gap space in the market for developers to exploit. Cue a Google reactionary product! Debuted at Google I/O, Google Now looked to be a step up from the Siri experience, with a deeper integration into how you use your smartphone and tighter predictive abilities.

SAGA nowBut it’s not here yet, and it’s certainly not going to be native for any iPhones in the near future. So again, hello market gap. It’s a gap that the team behind Saga noticed. “Scout’s honor, hand to god, we did not know Google Now was in development but when we heard from our guy at I/O about the announcement, we were super thrilled,” CEO Andy Hickl tells me. “We were really excited because it made our job making people understand this space so much easier.”

In a quick demo of Saga (which launches today and is free for iPhone), Hickl showed off how the phone, much like Google Now, reads what you’re using your phone to do and then makes predictions about what you might want to know and keeps a dynamic log of your history. Hickl describes it as a heads-up display for life: it’s a behind-the-scenes way to use your data, location, and habits to figure out what type of help you might need.

Under the hood, Saga uses your GPS information via nearby Wi-Fi hotspots, the phone’s accelerometers, and puts that into its backend machine to make data observations that it then packages nicely and displays to you. It doesn’t rely on check-ins or need frequent location updates you manually log; Hickl insists it gets down the minutiae of your movement, which is something that should interest Quantified Self enthusiasts who like the ability to track their every human moment.

Saga suggestionsTo that end, Saga launches with a few key platform integrations. The app will work with Runkeeper, Fitbit, and Withings integration, and Nike+ is on the horizon.

Of course you can’t talk about a location-based app without talking about battery drain – the great bane of location aware apps. Luckily for us and developers, this is getting better faster and faster, and Hickl says that you can use Saga for 30 hours on one overnight charge. The launch was actually delayed because the team wanted to get battery drain down ahead of the debut.

Saga infographicIn addition to battery life, there’s also many questions about data brokerage here. “If you tell us to nuke your data, to forget everything that Saga ever knew about you, we will do it,” Hickly says. “We want people to use this with a sense of safety. We will never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever sell this information to a third party.” I’m happy to say that’s a verbatim quote.

With that in mind, I had to ask him about a small ad I saw during the demo. In a log of his daily activity and location history, I saw a Groupon ad for a restaurant and asked if Saga would be using hyperlocal display ads as a revenue means. “We’re not getting affiliate money for this, and we’re probably, honestly, going to take them out,” he tells me. He says Saga was testing displaying relevant, local ads but that this leads to questions… like the one I had to ask. “We’re an honest broker, so we don’t want people to wonder why we’re showing them that.  We don’t want you to question your sidekick.” 

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