Future is now: Startup puts a ‘personal assistant in your ears’
Remember “Her,” the futuristic film that follows mild-mannered Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his relationship with Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), a computer operating system accessed via an ear bud that monitors Twombly’s every need?
Well, it’s all real.
Or, at least it will be in the not too distant future if Avishai Geller has anything to say about it.
The 2001 Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who cut his entrepreneurial teeth working for 10 years in Israel at SAP and a couple of startups has created a smart wireless headset that he calls “a contextually aware personal assistant in your ears.”
Geller brought his company, Maven Machines, to Pittsburgh last fall, and with $25,000 in seed funding from AlphaLab Gear — a startup accelerator program in East Liberty — has already developed its first product: a Bluetooth headset for truck drivers designed to detect if the driver is fatigued or distracted and to alert him or her before the situation becomes dangerous.
Containing a host of sensors, the headset generates real-time data on the driver’s performance, and the technology includes a cloud platform for online viewing of the data.
Three trucking companies, including PGT, have already signed on to purchase the headsets for some of their drivers.
“Wearable devices are kind of a new frontier in technology,” said Geller, who holds a patent on his device.
With the influx of such products such as Fitbit, smart watches and Google Glass, Geller wanted to come up with a wearable device that would be comfortable for both its users and the people around its users, noting that it can feel a little unsettling to encounter a person with a camera attached to his eyeglasses.
He settled on headphones as his vehicle after realizing that their placement over the ears “is one of the ideal spots on the body” to record such data as body temperature and breathing rate, and that the device’s proximity to the mouth makes it easy for a user to talk to it.
With more than 3.5 million professional truck drivers on the road in the United States, and about 500,000 trucking accidents per year, Geller decided to launch his first wearable product in the trucking industry, he said.
“I realized that almost all truck drivers wear Bluetooth ear pieces when they are driving,” Geller said. “And I realized we could deliver smart earpieces and some communication tools to keep them safe. It’s a virtual co-pilot in your ear.”
The headsets pick up such signs of fatigue as “head bobs,” Geller said, and other subtle motions, then play an audio message alerting the driver that within an hour or two he or she will be too tired to drive.
A vibrate option is also available for people who would prefer to not hear a voice, Geller said.
While safeguards are in place to protect the privacy concerns of the drivers, some information could be transferred to a company’s fleet manager or safety manager, such as whether a particular driver is experiencing excessive head bobbing, Geller said.
While Maven Machines’ central focus right now is on the headset for truck drivers, Geller is looking at other personnel to whom the technology could also be helpful, such as bus drivers, emergency response providers and crane operators.
Eventually, he said, he wants to get the technology out to the consumer market, recognizing that the computer operating system imagined in “Her” is within reach.
While Geller thinks the storyline of Twombly falling in love with Samantha is unrealistic, he did like the way the film depicted the technology as unobtrusive — virtually invisible — and the interface between humans and technology becoming seamless.
Devices from Maven Machines, he said, will know what a person is doing and where he is, and then use that information to assist him. For example, the device could remember where someone parked his car and then help him find it from wherever he is.
While the AlphaLab Gear program will conclude this summer, Geller said he plans to make Pittsburgh his home and the site of Maven Machines, although he had been living in Boston with his wife until he was accepted into the program.
“Pittsburgh is a very welcoming city,” he said, adding that with its universities and infrastructure, “it’s a great place to launch a company.”
And while he is happy to be back in the United States, he does miss living in Israel and thinks that he may eventually move back.
“There’s no place like it,” he said of the Jewish state. “They have the highest per capita of startups in the world. And it’s a culture where everyone is constantly questioning things and everyone thinks they have a way to do everything better.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.