Ever wish you had your very own Cyrano de Bergerac to help you out during life's awkward moments, whispering what to say in your ear? Now, there's an app for that. Crowdpilot is a free iOS app that lets friends, strangers or paid assistants listen in on your activities and send you 140-character tips. At least, that's the promise. We tried out Crowdpilot and found the service is plagued by delays and a lack of clarity.
Downloading Crowdpilot from the App Store was quick and simple. Once we launched the app, Crowdpilot asked for permission to access the microphone, then brought us to the home page. On this screen are two buttons - About Crowdpilot and Start a Session. The first offers a minute-and-a-half-long video introduction to the app, but does not give a step-by-step guide on actually using it.
Start a Session
We really liked Crowdpilot's simple interface, which employs colorful bars and tiles with clear labels. From the home screen, we tapped Start a Session and were brought to a setup screen where we could choose who we wanted to listen in.
We tapped the blue bar to invite Facebook friends and could choose between posting a link to our wall to invite all friends, or selecting particular people in our circle. Back on the Start Session screen, we tapped the lime green bar to allow public listeners, then tapped Select a Situation to move on. In addition to getting help from free volunteers, you can also hire English-speaking assistants to help for $0.99. (That requires you to sign in with your Apple ID.) During our testing, there was no way to identify if any of our listeners was a paid assistant, and the comments we received were not in any way more useful than the ones we received when we did not pay.
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On the Situations screen, we were presented with several scenarios - Date, Argument, Consolation, Family Gathering, Meeting, Chance Encounter and Unsure. We tapped Unsure, and an alert popped up asking "Everyone around knows you're Crowdpiloting this, right?" We imagine asking a date whether you can use Crowdpilot might make things more awkward, but given the intricacy of privacy laws, we can understand why Crowdpilot requires this step to cover itself. We tapped Of Course and were brought to a screen to briefly describe our problem for potential Crowdpilots.
After entering a quick message, we tapped an arrow on the top right, and the app created a Facebook event with the session details (after asking for posting permissions) and invited our selected friends.
This is where it got weird. Crowdpilot displays a message under a rotating crosshair icon saying it is waiting for listeners to join in, but without indication, the session had already started.
At this point, you would leave your phone on the table and resume your meeting or date, while keeping an eye out for suggestions that might pop up onscreen. But we found ourselves confused about whether it was OK to talk. Our first clue that someone was listening was when a comment popped up on the screen reading, "Can't hear anything." That's when we figured out that it was OK to go back to whatever we were doing instead of waiting in silence.
While the app is meant to be a discreet assistant for awkward situations, the sound that accompanies each listener's comment was intrusive. Each notification is a different variant on the sound of a distorted burp, which was very distracting. There is no way to turn off the alert within the app, but silencing the phone does the trick. Each comment shows up as a banner on the screen, and you can swipe left or right to tag the comment as helpful or unhelpful, respectively.
Another issue with Crowdpilot was the severe delay in audio. Our coworker sitting next to us plugged into the session and was hearing things we had said about 5 minutes earlier. We also saw comments coming in discussing issues we had brought up 2 minutes ago, which led to frustration. We couldn't tell if the delay was a problem with each user's connection or Crowdpilot's servers.
After we ended the session, Crowdpilot presented a Debrief screen that asked us to rate how helpful our listeners were, enter feedback for the app and share a post on Facebook.
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Feeling like a nosey good Samaritan? You can also offer to help others by going to Crowdpilot.me and clicking Become A Crowdpilot at the bottom right of the page. The site shows you open sessions that you can listen in on. We clicked on a Date with the description "Please help me to start talking with a just-meet girl. I'm shame." And were brought to a page with a field to enter encouraging messages.
The audio never came through on that session, so we tried a few others which either ended before we could connect or did not load. We can't be sure if it's a Crowdpilot problem or if the users were on unreliable connections. (Our coworker was able to reliably listen in on our session hosted over Wi-Fi.)
Using Crowdpilot during a family gathering, date or a meeting feels like having someone else take the SATs for you, only you're cheating at life without any discernible benefit. Moral concerns aside, Crowdpilot needs to provide better guidance within the app's interface, look into reducing the audio transmission delay and offer a way to silence notifications before it can deliver what it promises.