No more distractions: PunchThru delivers hands-free text messages
Imagine receiving a text while driving and being able to respond without touching the phone?
That’s the reality that Trumbull resident Anand Katragadda has been working toward over the last year, developing an app called PunchThru that aims to eliminate the dangers of distracted driving.
With the app officially launching last week for Androids and iPhones, the software engineer and product developer believes his idea will do what others have failed to do in the wake of the emerging text-and-drive crisis.
“I got the idea in my head a couple of years ago because I kept seeing the stories on the news about distracted driving and saw that there was a need for something to be done,” said Katragadda, who has over 20 years of experience in informational technology and telecommunications. “What I soon realized is that nothing on the market was doing the job correctly because all the solutions presented were about denying cell phone usage. The main problem I wanted to answer was simple: how do you have your phone in your car without being distracted? And that’s where the idea really took off because there’s always going to be a need to get through someone — to literally punch through to a person, whether it’s in case for emergency or if it’s just to tell your spouse you’re running late picking up the kids.”
By placing the phone back in the car and not asking for drivers to turn it off, Katragadda saw an advantage for his company and began developing a voice-based text software that delivers messages verbally and hands-free.
“We’re not replacement technology; we’re a fit between the Siris and other existing voice-recognition softwares,” the six-year Trumbull resident explained. “If my wife texts me while I’m driving, I will hear her voice from that text and I can chose to respond to it or wait; and, if I have PunchThru and I chose to respond, then I don’t have to pick up my phone.
“We can have a quick and effective conversation using yes or no responses — or some other short response — to figure something out,” he added. “I think Siri is used for longer conversations where you have more time to talk, not for conversations that are supposed to be brief.”
Katragadda, who has worked with companies such as Panasonic, Maxwell, and Scholastic CSR, has been able to promote PunchThru with a limited marketing budget thanks to a key partner — Westport resident Nile Rodgers.
The multi-Grammy-winning, multi-platinum artist, who has sold over $2 billion worth of music, got involved in the product in the early stages.
“The difference between us and Siri is you can’t tell who’s calling with Siri and that leads to a split second, or more, of distraction,” said Rodgers, who also partners with Microsoft, Capcom, Konami, Sony Playstation and Square Enix. “When Anand texts me using PunchThru, I can hear his voice — I know it’s him and that’s nice to have that ability to identify without having to pick anything up.”
In addition to being a multi-award-winning member of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and owner of the largest video game music label distributor in America, including Halo, Gear of War, Hitman and Resident Evil, Rodgers has created an organization called We Are Family Foundation where he interacts with 500 to 600 hundreds teens per month.
“They confide in me and they talk about their friends who have gotten into accidents because of texting,” he said. “All of us think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me,’ but the reality is that it’s only going to get worse if something isn’t done soon.
“I see distracted driving as an unnecessary headache and a problem that can be solved,” he added. “It’s all about changing the behavior of the driver.”
Cutting through the music
With almost one out of every five traffic stops in Trumbull coming from a cell phone-related usage and National Distracted Driving Awareness Month kicking off June 1, Katragadda is seizing the moment in attempt to conquer a great social evil.
Like Rodgers, he said that teens are undoubtedly the most affected by distracted driving.
“The text message, which, again, comes in the form of their friend’s voice, cuts through the music or whatever else might be playing in the car,” Katragadda told The Times. “The message plays and the music is paused briefly before going back on. They’re teens so they don’t want to be bothered, but once they hear their friends voice and realize it’s an important tool, they will begin to use it and rely on it while driving.
“And the app doesn’t have to be open to work,” he added. “Once it’s downloaded and you’re logged in, the message can be received and the driver can respond without having to take the hands off the wheel.”
Music is a vital part to Katragadda’s plan.
PunchThru has a built-in music sharing app that enables both parties to share clips without having to touch their phone.
“The driver can listen and respond and say that’s cool to his or her friend and that’s it,” the app’s architect said.
Rodgers, who he met about 15 years ago, has played an important role in the music side of the development.
“Nile is a second brother to me,” Katragadda said. “I called him when the idea was taking off and he’s helped take us to the next step.
“I’m lucky to have him as a partner and a friend,” he added.
Perhaps most important to the design of PunchThru is that driver can’t command the phone to send a message to someone; rather, he or she can only respond to a message that is received.
“Something we didn’t want is the driver to initiate the message — we don’t want it to be a command-based app,” Katragadda explained. “The interface we have in place is intentional to prevent the driver from making any commands.
“The message initiation is always done by the person who is not driving.”
So two drivers both on the road at the same time looking to communicate with each other are left to resort to a phone call?
It’s a better alternative than texting and driving — something that young drivers resort to way too often while behind the wheel, according to PunchThru’s founders.
“It’s a real-life aide,” said Rodgers, who has brought grass-root awareness to the app. “People like to text and drive and so the basic concept of this is: the driver cannot send texts.
“They have the ability to internalize a message, without being distracted, and respond to it while driving,” he added. “Because it’s someone’s voice, it comes through as much more important as an average text.”
Adjusting to hearing, not reading
Rodgers said hearing a text rather than reading one takes some adjustment but it’s not that difficult of a transition once the behavioral pattern is reinforced.
“It’s real personalization — that’s the aspect that makes it so unique,” he said.
“When Anand came to me with his presentation he put several cell phones on the table and different voices started come through on different ones,” he added. “That was just the tech demo, but it was happening in real time and that’s when I knew it could really work, because it’s a customized message that you’re receiving. It’s personal and that carries a different type of weight than your average text.”
The demonstration convinced Rodgers.
“The first response is laughter but then the second response is, ‘wow, this is really cool,’ and then after a while it becomes normal,” said Rodgers.
On PunchThru, the last five messages can be stored and replayed.
If a message is sent using the app, it doesn’t go into your message inbox, which should be used specifically for when people are not driving, Katragadda likes to point out.
“We debated for a while if we should allow for a replay function and right now we’re allowing it because we think it’s important to have in case a message comes in and you miss some important detail.”
For example, an address or driving directions that might need to be replayed.
The communication duration is limited to five to eight seconds for each response, so having a storage function — for now, at least — has proven vital.
“It’s only a few seconds of conversation — it’s real quick, short interaction,” said Katragadda, who has tested the app with various Trumbull groups, including his own family.
“We’ve had parents with young kids, commuting spouses, teachers, police and EMS chiefs, and driving schools test it — it’s ran the whole gamut,” he added. “We wanted to get their input and the feedback is that it’s a very effective application.”
So effective that Trumbull residents who download PunchThru might be hearing Police Chief Michael Lombardo’s voice coming through from time to time.
“With the integration of third-party messaging, we will be able to have messages blasted out to large groups for important news broadcasts like Amber Alerts,” Katragadda told The Times.
“We have to keep moving forward with this technology and looking ahead to the different applications where it can be applied within the framework of our community and all communities,” he added.