An Interview with Steven Echtman, Founder of HearPlanet

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Imagine having your very own tour guide that works on your schedule, no matter where you are. HearPlanet, an audio tour app for iPhone and Android (with mobile web and additional platform support on the way), gives you a pretty close approximation. Its massive audio guide database is impressive enough on its own, but its geolocation features make it easy to find landmarks of interest, hotels and restaurants near you on a map. You can also upload your own audio and other information about places. NerdWallet recently named HearPlanet a top travel app, but we wanted to learn more about how this awesome app came into being. Steven Echtman, HearPlanet’s founder, took time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about the inspiration for the app, and his company’s plans for the future.

 

NerdWallet: How did you get the idea for Hear Planet?

Steven: I was traveling in Europe in 2005. I really enjoyed taking walking tours, but I found they weren’t always available on my schedule. I wanted to find out about what was around me whenever I was there, and I figured there had to be a better way to access the kind of information tour guides carry around in their heads all the time. This idea kept kicking around in my head, even though I didn’t do anything about it right away.

Prior to founding HearPlanet, I was working on an Internet services startup and looking for my next big thing to dive into. At the time, a service like HearPlanet wasn’t really feasible due to the cost of providing content through interactive voice response (IVR) systems. We also didn’t have the technology and data plans that current smartphones include. When the iPhone came out with content streaming, abundant data plans and a graphical touch interface, I realized I had the perfect technical solution for HearPlanet.

Where do your audio files come from?

We get our sound files from all over the place. Some come from individual users. People can upload their own content to the app using our website and, soon, their iPhone. We also have a lot of professional content. We develop some content ourselves and some of it comes from our publisher partners and online sources. We have a text-to-speech engine that allows quick conversion of content from text sources, while our voice artists work on our high value locations.

There’s a free version of HearPlanet called HearPlanet Lite. The full version costs a few bucks. How are the two versions different?

The free version of our app has more commercial listings and paid featured content. Merchants can sign up for an “enhanced listing” which guarantees them top placement for their location and allows them to upload coupons. Our premium version has less commercial content presented and allows users to turn off some commercial content entirely. Actually, in both iPhone versions, you can turn different content sources on and off, but in the free ‘lite’ version, some commercial content is locked ‘on’ and premium content is locked ‘off.’

Let’s say I’m using Hear Planet for the first time. What should I do first?

I recommend playing around with the different features to see how they work. The “Featured” section will give you a sense of the top attractions in the area and in the world, and it may even give you the option to save money. The “Near Here” section lets you to view destinations based on where you are. All modes let you view locations in a list or on a map, and you can always load more items if you like. You can also filter by category, which is especially helpful if you’re looking for something like “places of historical interest” or restaurants.

What innovations do you have in the works for Hear Planet?

We’re building out the breadth and depth of our service. We’re expanding into more languages and locations, and improving the Featured content experience we provide in different locations. We’re also making HearPlanet interactive and social in a way that allows users to create and share their experiences and perspectives. We’re coming out with a mobile web version of HearPlanet that will work on any phone or device with a browser. Basically, we’re working on providing an augmented-reality audio layer across the entire globe that people can access wherever and whenever they like. This lets people find out what they want to know about places while remaining immersed in their environments, even while driving. We believe this has the potential to really improve people’s experiences and their connection to the world around them.