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I paid a virtual assistant 34 cents a minute to Google things and make my phone calls

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Fancy Hands unveils Orri, an on-demand assistant you can pay as you go

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Fancy Hands is a New York startup that provides a subscription service for virtual assistants. They do chores like book your appointments, find you a dog sitter, or reschedule an airline flight. Today the company is rolling out a new app, Orri, that tries to offer the same service without the subscription. Instead of paying a fixed price for a set number of tasks per month, you pay 34 cents a minute for whatever you need as you need it. I tried Orri out over the last few days with with a mix of pleasant and not-so-productive results.

The app is currently Android only, and users get a $10 credit for signing up. A colleague had a relative visiting from out of town and wanted help booking the best trip. I asked Orri to find me a bus leaving Elmira, New York, this Friday, arriving at the Port Authority in Manhattan as close to 6PM as possible.

The app provides a live feed of your assistant's activity, so I watched her bouncing from Google to a travel search engine to the website for Coach buses. Six minutes and $2.14 later, she provided her suggestion for a bus arriving at 5:55PM, along with information about what line it was and where to follow up for booking.

"So you're paying people to Google things for you?"

"So you're paying people to Google things for you?" was the response I got from my coworker when I delivered this info. In this case, yeah pretty much. I found the same answer in less than 60 seconds doing the hard work of Googling the query myself. Definitely not an efficient use of Orri.

For my second attempt I took a chore from my own life: schedule an appointment for my wife to get a massage at a local spa, a gift for our anniversary. This has been on my to-do list for days, but I kept forgetting to make time. I gave Orri my wife's name, our local spa, and some possible dates and times. Three minutes and $0.93 later, the job was done. That felt like a win I would repeat with similar tasks.

"When we started Fancy Hands five years ago, it was very email based and slow as far as the response times," said founder Ted Roden. As the company grew in scale, with thousands of assistants across the US on the system at any given time, it was able to do things differently. "We can offer something without a subscription that is faster and more responsive."

A modern, mobile Mechanical Turk

Orri is basically a modern, mobile version of Mechanical Turk, the Amazon project that first popularized the use of virtual, on-demand labor. It even has an API that lets companies "program with people," plugging human workers into their services with a few lines of code.

It was often fun and useful to tap an app and instantly have a live human helping me power through the daily deluge of small chores that pile up. But I also felt a little guilty. When I was using Orri, I kept comparing it to the digital assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Google Now. I wondered what life was like for the workers bouncing from task to task, squeezing out an extra minute here or there.

While 34 cents a minute works out to a respectable $20.40 an hour, Fancy Hands no doubt takes a cut of that, and it's not clear that there is a steady and predictable supply of tasks. Orri feels like another step into a future where human capital is atomized, our brain power sold like CPU cycles. I hope that the value it can deliver to end users like me is matched by the benefit to the workers on the other end. The anonymous reviews of the company on Glassdoor are dramatically split, with some praising the flexible hours as a great way to make extra cash, and others decrying it as slave labor that doesn't pay what it promises.

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