For the most part, public transit apps look like relics of the GeoCities era—very utilitarian, not very pretty. In some cases we might as well be stuffing our pockets with MapQuest printouts.
Ototo, an iPhone app that launched this week, would like to change that with a touch of design savvy. Its goal is to do for public transit what Waze is doing for highway traffic: That is, Ototo quietly siphons location data from its users to paint a real-time portrait of when your train is coming, or how far away your next bus is. At least in theory, the technology allows you to budget your time better, and could save you from having to sprint in work shoes, or wait on a freezing subway platform for an extra 20 minutes.
It might even help you deal with sudden, unpredictable commuting headaches. "Let's say you're on a bus on 5th Ave., and you just got a flat tire," cofounder David Vatine, who is based in Israel, tells Fast Company. "We will be able to offer another route in real-time."
The application's core technology isn't so different from HopStop (before it was acquired by Apple) or NextTrain before it. The difference, though, is that it distills all that information into a clean, minimal interface that does away with extraneous options. It tells you exactly what to do, and when.
Using it is easy: Type in your target destination, and off you go. Tilt the phone to the side while you're making headway, and it breaks your trip into manageable, multi-colored breaks with specific directions. In a way, it's like being fed turn-by-turn driving directions over GPS—except you're not actually driving anything.
Of course, the major challenge for any platform that relies on its users to provide on-the-fly, contextual information is scaling to a point where the data can provide meaningful results; good design will only get you so far. "We have global 30,000 downloads from the first week," Vatine says. "In the U.S. right now, we have about 10,000 to 12,000. That number is rising, and we are counting on people to use it."
That's still a far cry from HopStop, which a year ago reported about two million monthly active users before joining the cult of Cupertino. But Ototo is up for the challenge, and envisions itself becoming a nifty tool for tourists who don't want to tote around foldable maps, or hurried commuters poking around for the most efficient route to point B as possible.
"'Ototo' is actually an expression in Hebrew," Vatine says. "It means, 'In a minute.'" iOS users can download it here.