It’s a situation many of us have faced: leaving a ball game, holiday event or a crowded movie theater and facing a swarm of Ubers and Lyfts that are all trying to pick up different riders.
“You don’t know which one’s yours, and invariably they’re all black Priuses,” jokes Sean Murphy, the co-founder and VP of engineering at Igor Institute, a Seattle-based consumer electronics consultancy.
Igor worked with Lyft and Ammunition Group to solve this problem. The team developed Amp, an LED device that will sit on a Lyft driver’s dashboard and helps riders find their car with an array of colorful patterns. The signature feature of the device is its ability to display a unique color pattern that matches a pattern displayed on the passenger’s smartphone, to help the passenger find the right car.
The device will roll out in select cities soon, replacing Lyft’s iconic and much beloved pink mustache, which was a “Glowstache” in its most recent incarnation.
And even though the mustache will soon be a thing of the past, Murphy and Igor Institue co-founder and CEO Aren Kaser hope the Amp will follow in its steps and add a playful and personal touch to the riding experience.
“Lyft has definitely put together a brand messaging and a user experience, a rider and driver experience, that is more fun, that is more welcoming, that has that personal touch,” Kaser said. “I think they’ve really targeted it with this device to make it more of a community around ride-sharing.”
Murphy and Kaser join us on this episode of the GeekWire podcast to discuss their role in solving this difficult situation. Listen to our full conversation above, or download the MP3 here, and keep reading for an edited transcript of the conversation.
Todd Bishop: You worked on a brand-new device being used by Lyft, the popular ride-hailing service — I’m looking at the device right here. It sits on the dashboard. Describe what this device is.
Sean Murphy: The Amp is basically going to be the replacement for the Glowstache, which was the pink mustache light that was Lyft’s brand for many years. What they wanted to do was to create a device that was more interactive and then basically could change colors, provide different types of animations and patterns so that it would be easy for riders and drivers to find each other in that classic scenario when you’re leaving a movie theater and there are several people calling Lyft at once. You don’t know which one’s yours, and invariably they’re all black Priuses. This was the idea that you could have a unique color pattern that you could immediately walk out and say, “It’s a flashing yellow light. That’s my Lyft.”
Bishop: It corresponds, then, with the way you see things on the app?
Murphy: Right. Your phone would show you a yellow pattern. You look for that same yellow pattern, or a green pattern or a pink pattern. It’s just very quick. Then the driver can also see you, and so if they have to do any sort of repositioning it happens very naturally and very quickly.
Bishop: Describe this challenge for people who are using ride-hailing services, and how this device solves it.
Aren Kaser: Lyft has been in the business for a long time and really found that that last 30 seconds to a minute of connecting a driver and a rider is the most difficult part — finding your car, connecting safely. This gives an opportunity for riders and drivers to have a better experience. Then, as you see on the back of it, the in-car experience is also augmented by this device. When you get into it it’ll say, “Hello, Todd,” or, “Welcome, Todd.” It’ll also let the driver know the name of the passenger before the passenger gets in. It could have promotions tied to an event in the city that the Lyft car is in. It could have different greetings depending on the time of year or events that are happening in the world. You could do the same thing across — all the Lyfts in a certain city could be Mariner’s blue, let’s say, if they ever win a World Series.
Bishop: Let’s describe the device here. It’s an oval shape, it sits on the dash, and it has essentially an LED panel that lights up different colors and different patterns with the Lyft logo in between. Then on the back, as you were saying, Aren, it’s got this really interesting messaging platform. It looks like otherwise it could be the back of a regular smart phone or something, but it’s got lights and letters in there. Describe this technology. What’s involved here?
Murphy: Sure. On the front, there’s 20 RGB LEDs that create that color field around the Lyft logo, and then there are several more white LEDs that illuminate the logo. We’re able to control those pieces independently, which gives us a platform that we can create animations, different types of patterns, solid colors. It’s always doing something slightly dynamic. Even in a situation where it’s essentially just an illuminated brand expression, if you look at it, it’s still slightly twinkling a little bit. The Lyft team, once we’ve given them this platform, they’ve done an amazing job of really bringing it to life. It was a really interesting and fun partnership between Lyft and Ammunition and Igor for us to be able to put this thing together and actually bring it to life.
Bishop: That’s right, we should point out you worked on this with Ammunition Group, which is a design group out of San Francisco. This was obviously a very collaborative effort among the various companies. So describe the process for me. I’m now calling a Lyft once this rolls out. What happens for me as a user? When I hail a ride on Lyft, how do I interact with this device?
Murphy: What’s going to happen at the beginning is that it’s going to be very familiar to you. You’ll hail a Lyft, and it will show up just like it normally would. As you get close, as the car gets close to you, it will tell you what pattern there is going to be. This is something that will evolve over time. It may get the point where you could choose your own pattern. At the moment it’s going to happen on the Lyft side. It’ll tell you that your particular car is going to have a teal beacon when it arrives.
Bishop: So you’ll see that in the Lyft app on your phone?
Murphy: You’ll see it on the app, right. You’ll be able to see that ahead of time. The driver is going to be able to see that it’s very familiar to them. On the inside screen they might already be receiving messaging about the passenger’s name. It might say, “You’re picking up Todd.” It’s just a reminder, because ideally what you want to have is that really easy greeting when you get in the car, that you both know each other’s name. I find myself frequently now in a Lyft of having to reopen the app just to quickly remind myself the driver’s name so I’m not getting into a car and going, “Oh, hi.” It’s just facilitating that. The driver will be aware of the same pattern, because they won’t actually see the screen, so they’ll be able to see it on their app as well. Then they know what they’re looking for, and hopefully you find each other right away.
Your GPS coordinates aren’t exactly precise. It’s not precise for the car. It’s not precise for you. You might have that situation where you’re across the street from where the GPS pin thinks you are. Of course, as a customer you just expect the Lyft to sleekly pull up right to the curbside next to you. We’re getting there, and that’s what this is all about.
Bishop: You get in the car, and as we’ve been describing there’s a really interesting LED panel on the back of the device that you can see from inside the car. Actually, it’s not an LED panel. I’m looking at it now. It’s not lit up.
Kaser: It’s a dead-fronted screen.
Bishop: Dead-fronted, what is that?
Kaser: When it’s turned off, you can’t see it. Even though this plastic is clear, it’s darkened in a way that when the LED lights aren’t on it’s a hidden screen.
Bishop: It’s fascinating. Right now it’s saying, “New ride.” It’s flashing back and forth. Obviously, you can deliver messages. How much of a technical challenge was that? It looks very unique.
Murphy: It is. It’s 120 individual LEDs, so the electronics are designed to control them individually through a little multiplexing. There’s a lot of underlying electronic technology there. We had a little bit of an inside track because one of our other co-founders did a lot of the primary engineering work for the Nike FuelBand. We came to this organically through the design process between Ammunition, between Lyft, to get this screen to be part of it.
In one of the original concepts really it was just replacing the Glowstache. It was completely outward-facing. It didn’t have an in-car expression. Then, once we started to realize that there was an opportunity there to do something during the ride, not just before the ride, it became this idea of, “What if we have a display on the inside as well as the outside?” We eventually ended up here. It’s challenging. It definitely adds a level of complexity that wasn’t originally there. Obviously, with any product you have some cost targets for the device, so getting everything together was a real challenge, and we’re delighted that it’s still here.
Bishop: Igor Institute is a consumer electronics development consultancy, and you worked on this with Ammunition Group, a design firm in San Francisco. How did this project even come about?
Kaser: We had a relationship with the folks at Ammunition before this device started or before this project started. Early on when Lyft and Ammunition were working together and starting that design process they reached out to us as a potential partner. We started that process with Lyft to get to know them and get really involved early on, which is what we enjoy doing on these projects, is get engineering involved in that early design process and find ways to collaborate and help that process really move forward.
Kaser: I would say that in the beginning, our role is mostly one of just helping with levels of feasibility. What’s technically possible? What’s achievable within the time line? What’s achievable within the predicted or target budget for the device? It is really collaborative, but you’re not necessarily doing the nuts and bolts. We would build lots of proof-of-concept pieces to show what a certain type of technology, how it might look like, because you’re ultimately looking for an optical effect and so it’s hard to describe it. You almost have to build it to see it.
Bishop: You’re based in Seattle in Pioneer Square. This is not traditionally known as a hardware town. Obviously, Microsoft created a lot of the engineering base here, based on software. They were very purposefully not involved in hardware over the years, and that created a very software-focused pedigree in Seattle. What’s it like designing hardware and developing hardware in Seattle?
Kaser: Sean’s actually based out of the Bay Area. We have an office down in San Francisco as well, but I’m based here in Pioneer Square. I actually think that we were a hardware town before a software town.
Bishop: Planes, right?
Kaser: Yeah. If you look at Boeing and if you look at the companies that do what we do, there’s a high concentration of consultancies that do product engineering in the Northwest and in the Bay Area, and they’ve been here for many years. A lot of the reason is because over the years, from the 1920s, the ebb and flow of Boeing with hirings and layoffs, and just the support industry that goes around fabrication shops, plastic shops, metal shops, all of these different things, they really created during the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s the base for everything that we do in hardware. Fluke is nearby as well, so folks that left Fluke that started a consultancy here in Seattle. Folks that left that company then started another one. We’ve left companies and started our own. There’s actually a lot of hardware engineering that happens here in Seattle. If you remember, in the ’80s even Microsoft made their mice and their keyboards and stuff locally.
Kaser: All of those PCB shops and plastic shops still exist, and we could — for a higher cost probably — we could build any of these products even locally in the Seattle area, and even in the Bay Area.
Bishop: We’ve been talking about the Amp device from Lyft that’s going to be on the dashboard. It’s got an LED screen on the front. And what was it called on the back?
Murphy: It’s an LED matrix that’s on the back.
Bishop: How soon can we expect to see these driving around town?
Murphy: New Year’s Eve is when Lyft is going to start seeding some target markets. I think New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas are the first markets that will be receiving them. Manufacturing is ramping up right now. There’s tens of thousands on the ocean right now. You’ll be seeing them soon. The behind-the-scenes challenges that we’re all still working together on is, now that we’ve announced it, how do we actually get them into cars?
Bishop: I know that both of you are obviously heavy Lyft users, as you would, based on a client relationship.
Kaser: Took one today on the way in.
Bishop: Yes, exactly. What’s it going to feel like when you get into a Lyft for the first time as an actual passenger and see this on the dashboard?
Kaser: It’s going to be hard for me not to tell every driver that we worked on it, and just keep my cool.
Murphy: I’ve actually seen one from the beta test in San Francisco, and I almost jumped in front of the car I was so excited to see it. It’s going to be really, really fun. It’s one of those unique types of projects.
Kaser: It’s very public. I think from a hardware engineering perspective it’s maybe 1 out of 10, 1 out of 20 projects that go all the way from design, all the way through manufacturing — Sean spent at least a couple full months in China over the course of the year — all the way to market and be in the public view. It’s a treat. A lot of people spend a lifetime doing the work that we do and don’t get to see their work go all the way to market.
Bishop: Where could you take this down the road? Is this the kind of device that you could update and enhance with software updates that would make it even more customized or things along those lines?
Murphy: Absolutely. The device can be updated over the air, we call it OT updates. Those will be rolling out. The animations that are on the device will constantly be updated. Those are being maintained by Lyft. They have their designers that are continually working with those. It’s really a device that we intend — and Lyft intends — will grow and evolve over time. There will be regional things, like Aren was saying, if the Mariners win, where there’s a city-wide pattern that they can do messaging that they can do, elections, Fourth of July, all these fun things. It’s really intended to be a platform. Just over the development, the level of playfulness and the level of magic that it has has really surprised even us. I can’t wait to see how far we can push it.
Bishop: When you look at ride-hailing overall, where is it headed? Just obviously in your opinion as users and people who watch the market, do you see how it’s evolving over the next two to three years? What are your thoughts?
Murphy: I think there’s two major thrusts to ride-hailing and ride-sharing. One is I think just really making the experience better for users, passengers and drivers. Then I think you’re seeing that second track that’s really around, what will the nature of autonomous vehicles be? All the ride-sharing companies are investing heavily in that. There will still be a passenger-facing role to it. We would anticipate that the Amp will be part of a future fleet even if the future fleet is an autonomous vehicle.
Kaser: I think, to Sean’s point, we know the other players that are in the ride-sharing market, and there’s new ones coming online all the time. Lyft has definitely put together a brand messaging and a user experience, a rider, a driver experience that is more fun, that is more welcoming, that has that personal touch. I think they’ve really targeted it with this device to make it more of a community around ride-sharing.
Bishop: They definitely, Lyft, have more of a lively, fun brand. They’ve come at it from that approach. It seems like this device reflects that.
Murphy: It really does, and I think it really gets to the actual experience, where you would think that they would all be identical, but there really is a difference in the experiences. I think that’s the ultimate goal of the Amp, is how do you spread that message to a bigger market than just the Pacific Northwest? That’s ultimately one of the reasons that the mustache — as much as we loved it and it’s really, really playful — it’s how do you maintain that playfulness and humanity but turn it into something that’s a little bit more brand-focused?
Kaser: Because of that, and it’s the same with their business strategy and their business dealings, they were a real joy to work with. So was Ammunition. It was a fun team. It was almost 18 months of collaboration. It was a lot of fun.