Many of the hottest tech companies today are closed circuits, existing in and for the digital world. But a growing number of companies are founding themselves on the idea that technology can enhance, rather than replace, our real-world experiences.
Serial entrepreneur Caterina Fake, most prominently known as co-founder of Flickr, is tapping into this trend with her latest startup, Findery. An augmented-reality app, Findery promises to offer a wealth of information about its users' environments through annotations of the physical world. The goal, she says, is to "give the world back to people, have them look up from their devices and see the world around them."
Too much technology these days is about "manipulating human nature rather than helping human flourishing," says Fake, who holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from Vassar College and laces her conversation with quotes from Wallace Stevens and John Ruskin. She envisions Findery as "kind of a liberal arts paradise," offering its users everything from personal stories about city attractions to an insider's perspective of the Dubai World Cup horse race.
San Francisco-based Findery launched in public beta last October. The 12-employee company has raised $9.5 million so far from a mix of angel investors and venture-capital firms, according to Fake, the founder and chief executive. It expects to release its free mobile app as early as this summer. In the meantime, you can test-drive the app on the company website. You enter a location into a search bar, and on the resulting map -- you can switch between three views, including a detailed Google satellite image -- you'll find notes about people, events and other points of local interest.
For instance, you can read a man's reminiscence of his time in Sossusvlei National Park in Namibia, or learn about a Brazilian journalist's boat that sank off the coast of Antarctica. "It reveals that part of the world to you as you explore it," says Fake, who has worked for years on ways of using data to create a personalized experience.
For a tech entrepreneur, Fake is remarkably free of the techno-utopianism that appears to be rife in Silicon Valley these days. "One of the things that I uniquely have as an entrepreneur is that I was deeply steeped in the humanities," she says, noting that she continues to read and write poetry regularly.
With Findery, she hopes to make the things that you're passionate about "bubble up" -- so if you're interested in architecture you will see detailed notes about buildings, while someone more interested in military history will see more facts about that.
The Findery team "seeded" its app with several hundred notes to get things started. There are tens of thousands now, with the majority of information coming from users. Once the mobile app is available, Fake says, she imagines people using it both while lounging at home -- "the armchair traveler experience" -- and while exploring the world outside.
One way to use Findery is to learn about your own city. When you load the app, you'll see annotations about your immediate surroundings. For example, Fake has learned new things through the app about her San Francisco neighborhood, where she has lived for seven years, such as the fact that Courtney Love lived with Kurt Cobain on her block, and that the local Safeway was almost a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.
"Recommendation is pretty much a solved problem in the world these days, but the sense of wonder and discovery never gets tired," says Fake. She wants Findery to be "an adventure machine."
Business owners can also sign up for accounts. Real-estate firm Corcoran provides information about its properties and other local knowledge on Findery in an effort to attract potential clients. The company is focused on product development for the time being, but Fake says the team is already planning one means of making money: sponsored notes. When they are implemented, anyone will be able to pay to promote something, whether it's a big company advertising its hotel or a local gallery owner drawing attention to an upcoming art show.
Fake, who sees Findery as "a living atlas," hopes eventually to partner with museums and other nonprofit organizations that can contribute content to the app. One existing partnership, with U.K.-based Open Plaques, has provided markers for historically significant events around the world.
"My lifelong aspiration has been to make technology more human," she says, adding that this attitude is what attracts potential partners and investors to Findery. "These are real people, these are real places, these are real stories. It's got a lot of soul."