Glancing at the time on her phone, she realizes the library closed five minutes ago, and that means her roommate should be on her way home. Just as she begins to worry about her friend’s safety, she receives a push message: On the other side of the campus, her roommate has opened the app that sent out the push, a message that asks her to be her friend’s virtual “companion” as she walks home. She answers yes, and the worry dissolves, because as a virtual companion, she will know where her roommate is on every step of her way to safety.
Companion, a free mobile app available in both iPhone and Android versions, allows users to place family and friends on a contact list whose members receive requests to act as virtual companions whenever the app is opened. Accepting a request links them to an interactive map that shows the user virtually walking a designated route. In the meantime, the user simply drops the phone into a pocket and starts moving, keeping aware of surroundings and letting Companion (and the virtual companions) keep an eye on things as well.
Companion detects changes in movement created by actions such as running or falling, deviations from the designated route and disconnects between headphones and jack. When activated by any of these triggers, Companion immediately asks the user “OK?” If 15 seconds pass without a response, the app alerts the designated companion(s) the user may be in trouble; simultaneously turns the phone into a noisy personal alarm; and, if the user attends a college or university that collaborates with the app, instantly notifies campus police/security. (The user, if able, may also call 911.)
Version 2.0.3, released in August 2015 to a worldwide market, has received extensive national and international publicity. The resulting hundreds of thousands of downloads in a short time has been a startling and welcome surge of growth for the team of University of Michigan students that created the app in 2014. Lexie Ernst, a co-founder and business major, says a group of friends were bouncing around ideas about what they could do to address the important issue of campus safety by leveraging technology, and they came up with the idea to create Companion. Winning the Michigan Business Challenge through the university’s Ross School of Business and Zell Lurie Institute helped get the project underway.
“We worked on it for a few months and released Version 1.0 in November 2014. It was a slow growth student startup, with a few thousand downloads over a few months, and it was exciting for us because it was our first project,” Ernst says, adding “When we hit 5,000 users, we had a huge party.”
The burst of publicity after the release of the revised version, including articles in Business Insider and Tech Times, resulted in a hundred times as many downloads, and “we didn’t know what hit us. Overnight, it seemed, we had a half-million users.”
Interest in Companion has spread from college campuses to include parents who want to use the app to keep track of their young children and to working adults concerned about elderly parents. And while the user base spreads and grows, the team makes plans to expand its collaboration beyond the Ann Arbor Police Department to other campus police/security departments across the country, getting them to tie into the app so it can contact them directly. They’re also working on collecting data on spots where users pull out their phones and activate Companion’s “I feel nervous” feature, with plans to analyze reports and map trouble spots that might merit increased public safety attention. The Companion team is also looking into further potential funding sources.
“It’s very important to us to keep this free to users,” Ernst says. “I have a heavy school schedule and a lot going on and it all makes life crazy, but I know we’re doing some really important work here. We live in an information age where so many things are possible. If you feel there’s an issue that needs to be addressed, today’s technology makes it possible for you to do something… and we are.”