Foursquare’s Founder Revives Audio Vision With BeeBot to Make You Aware of the World Beyond Your Phone

Adobe Firefly-created image of a woman wearing headphones on a city block.

Foursquare, a location-based service provider, once launched an audio guide application designed to seamlessly provide reviews and recommendations for captivating local spots directly to your AirPods. However, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered those efforts, resulting in the shelving of the app. Nevertheless, company co-founder Dennis Crowley retained his interest in the concept and has now revived it with a new project called BeeBot.

BeeBot: City-Centric Audio Experiences

“I like to build things,” Crowley said during an appearance on the Big Technology podcast last month. “Since leaving Foursquare, I’ve tried to do less building and more company building and product building, and advising because that’s what I was doing for a while. But I like to build stuff.”

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He says the Foursquare audio guide app, called Marsbot, was his favorite thing while working at Foursquare. This “Mr. Spock for AirPods” would tell you about places near you as you walked around a city. At its peak, Marsbot had “a couple of thousand users” but failed to scale. “But there was enough there to be like, there’s something really interesting here,” Crowley explained.

Armed with compelling feedback, he set off to develop BeeBot. But don’t call it a new company or product: “It’s a project I’m working on with a couple of folks who worked at Foursquare.”

Imagine walking through a city and receiving an audio note informing you about a nearby business, telling you about an event taking place or why a location is interesting. This is BeeBot to Crowley: “Almost like a version of Waze, but for people who walk around. What should I know about? What should I not know about? What should I stay away from? What should I flock towards?”

This app has around 50 people testing it now, with most in New York. However, BeeBot is not ready for prime time. Crowley clarified it’s at the stage where the team is fine-tuning things to make it work better before they can then “start to layer the fun, whimsical and weird stuff on top of it.”

Audio Is a Poor Man’s Augmented Reality

Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley plays four square at the company's activation event at the South by Southwest festival in March 2011. Photo credit: Ken Yeung
Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley plays four square at the company’s activation event at the South by Southwest festival in March 2011. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

Don’t think of BeeBot as a self-guided audio tour guide like Voicemap, GuideAlong, and TravelStorys. Based on Crowley’s description, you maintain control of your journey and BeeBot will air noteworthy tips and recommendations based on your surroundings. There are similarities to using a wearable augmented reality device such as smart AR glasses.

Crowley isn’t keen on wearables: “Everyone wants to wear the glasses and see the virtual post-it notes. I’ve tried the glasses — [they] aren’t happening anytime soon.” However, he finds AR audio more impactful, as people often wear headphones or wireless earbuds like AirPods.

Using the compass, accelerometer, motion and GPS, as well as Foursquare’s API and its movement SDK, BeeBot will tell you about your surroundings.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Crowley is leveraging his former company’s technology. Could BeeBot incorporate data from Yelp in the future if the app gains traction? Never say never. But the appeal of Foursquare, beyond the obvious bias, is it may have amassed more social data so you’ll be presented with friend-generated contextual information. Foursquare has also proven its platform can accurately gauge foot traffic at businesses, ensuring the right info is shown at the right location at the right time.

Enhance the Real World, Not Distract From It

It’s easy to think that this is simply an extension of Foursquare in which you use the mobile app to search for places to shop, dine or visit. That’s not what BeeBot wants to be about.

“We’re not here to distract you. We’re not here to pull you into the internet. We are here to augment your experience of the real world,” Crowley explained.

He did acknowledge the comparison to his past creation and also took shots at how this entrepreneurial endeavor would be different from internet technologies today:

“I feel like this is what we were trying to do with Foursquare in 2013 before things like Instagram and Snap got so big and people got lost in endlessly scrolling feeds and dopamine hits of likes…I have this whole thesis about the internet that I wanted to exist…that internet never happened. It’s over here in bizarro world. And the internet we got is the one that you can just sit and scroll forever, the algorithm will keep giving you stuff…remov[ing] yourself from the real world.”

I’m interested to see how BeeBot further differentiates itself from Foursquare if it were to become a company. The origins of the company weren’t clear from Crowley’s interview — as far as we know, it’s not a company or a product, just a project.

Nevertheless, his intentions are commendable. Walk down any city block and you’ll see many people with their eyes down, glued to their smartphones, only peeking up suddenly when at a crosswalk (hopefully!) or narrowly avoiding colliding with someone or something. Through BeeBot, you’ll be able to navigate safely through streets and receive helpful information without being a walking disaster or being the target of unwanted glares because of what you’re wearing on your face.

At the end of this podcast segment, Crowley summed up his goal for BeeBot and as an entrepreneur: “My whole career has been to build software for the streets, the right stuff that helps people pay attention to the real world…What I’m trying to do now at this stage in my career is go back to that moment in time, like 2013, when I felt like Foursquare had a lot of the stuff right. We just weren’t big enough to make the thing happen. And I want to go back to that and build the things that I think should have existed.”

Because the app is still in very early development, a website has not been created yet. However, you can sign up to join BeeBot’s waitlist using this Google Form.

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