Consumer Technology

This sensor lets you avoid crowds and long lines

After a long day of work you may want to hit to gym, or grab a few drinks at a bar with friends.

The only problem: Everyone else might have the same plan, and before you know it you're waiting 15 minutes for an elliptical machine or on a 45-minute waiting list for a table.

Enter Density, a small sensor that measures real-time populations of physical locations like coffee shops, bars, gyms and retailers, in order to let users know when it's too crowded to go.

The sensor itself—a roughly 1.5-inch square—is placed by an entrance where it registers people entering and leaving; think of it like a next-gen tally counter. By harnessing population data, the company is offering both developers as well as consumers a peek into the anonymous foot traffic going through the establishments. The sensor hardware and installation are free for companies, but cost $25 a month per location.

Density sensors that track population/foot traffic.
Source: Density

The sensor is already in use at Requested—an app-based service that connects diners with discounts at restaurants—and Workfrom, which provides users remote work places ranging from coffee shops to co-working spaces. The only other partner they've disclosed is the Associate Students University of California, which includes locations throughout the UC-Berkeley campus.

The company is a year and a half old, and has been live for about a month. They have a total of $1 million in funding.

With an open developer API, other companies can use the information Density collects in their own apps, and share that information with their users. One of the benefits to this is that retailers can incentivize consumers when their traffic is low. For example: Requested, the discount dining service, offers steeper discounts at low traffic times in a bid to entice customers to fill empty seats.

"We expected a lot of point-of-sale system and technical start-ups to reach out. What we've had reach out instead are airlines, big brand retailers and corporate campuses," said Density CEO Andrew Farah.

One example was a bid by a large nonprofit that tends to the homeless, which was looking at Density as a way to track how many people they serve anonymously so they could apply for future grants.

Density sensors that track population/foot traffic.
Source: Density

Although some large retailers such as Wal-Mart have the ability to track foot traffic, the number of companies offering this service are few, and the cost can be prohibitive.

"Right now, people count has been relegated to big retailers who can afford those systems," said Farah. "In the online world, the amount of tracking that goes on for any individual is unbelievably deep. But as soon as you move IRL [in real life], the stakes change and the sensitivities change. People just thought Google analytics for the real world was going to be a thing and the answer is, it's just not that simple." Density is aiming to provide a low-cost and anonymous alternative.

Of course, Density isn't the only one in the population data game. In July, Google announced it would be introducing a new feature into Google Search cards that will show an hour-by-hour breakdown of business and public places' busiest times.

While Google's system can't measure how many people are waiting in a line, it can say how many are in a store using the same technology that estimates heavy traffic on the roads—anonymized Android location data. Although Google's data collection is a bit more predictive than real time, their interest in the space indicates a growing demand from consumers for population and traffic data.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Density's correct level of funding.