The Location Game

Back in 2006, when I was rocking my old Sony Ericsson T610 on TMobile, before I moved on to a Palm Treo, I came across a new service with a revolutionary idea. Plazes was one of the original checkin sites, operating through SMS messaging to let the site know where you were. We didn’t have the benefit of verification by GPS to make sure I didn’t claim to be at the Eiffel Tower when I was actually kicking back in New Jersey. You texted your location as best as you could specify and their engine would figure out where it was on Google maps and place you there. They used shortcuts to let you define favorites such as Work and Home for frequent use. They had a point system for biggest users and kept track of how much time it took you to get between places to rank fastest travelers. While it was fun to keep track of where I’d been, there were no social service hooks and none of my friends were at all interested in using it. Once at the forefront of the location game, Plazes is now a pale imitation, having hardly any locations in its database.

Dodgeball had already been out for a number of years, acquired by Google shortly before I began using Plazes. I never really got into using it, as it was also limited in the number of locations in it’s database, only being available in major cities. None of these services seemed complete and ready for prime time, or worth my time.

Once I started using Facebook and they revamped their apps interoperability, I eventually noticed some of my friends using something called Foursquare. It was soon followed up by Loopt, Google Latitude/Places, Gowalla, Brightkite, Yelp, and more. Foursquare, the successor to Dodgeball, held the most interest with it’s points, badge system, and large database. Facebook, giving up on the purchase of Foursquare, created their own Places service, taking advantage of their vast established user base. I would have expected that one detail to have killed off competition for Places, but the lack of game mechanics in It just doesn’t make it as fun to use as Foursquare. Gowalla feels like they’re trying too hard to be Foursquare with their pin reward system. It just comes off as being a little dopey, where Foursquare seems cooler. There are more of these out there, but they just don’t have the same appeal. Foursquare has become the backbone of location services the way Facebook has become the backbone of relationship services.

Privacy and location have been a big deal, but nothing brought this to the public eye more than Apple’s recent admission that they were storing and using location data on iPhones without the public’s knowledge. Common sense would tell you that if the phone has GPS turned on, and you might be using it to map directions, somehow the location services may be running in the background and logged somewhere for someone else to see. I agree that sharing this data with unwanted individuals is undesirable, but in aggregated form it presents no threats to anyone. I have no illusions that an evil corporation is wondering what I’m doing at this very moment at my current location. Early on in 2008 while using TripIt on a trip to Boston, I recall getting an email from my brother asking me if I really wanted anyone knowing that I was not home. My reply was that I had only shared this with friends, and that if I had to worry about being robbed by a close friend, I had other bigger problems in life. This was back in the day when everyone mistakenly left their profiles open to be seen and Googled by anyone, though I made sure mine was set to Friends Only from the start. I have been hooked on sharing location data with people I know for some time now. Not everyone is as keep to location sharing as I am, though. I come from the idea that i have nothing to hide, but my fiancée doesn’t like that I share everything with everyone, coming from the idea that not everyone has earned the right to see everything we might possibly be doing out together. So I’ve taken to keeping my sharing data everywhere but Facebook except for special events. A lot of the location services in this game allow you to make data private, but this keeps a lot of the benefits from working. Read on.

The Location Game has it’s benefits as well. When sellers know you are in the area, they are more likely to offer you something extra to compel you to buy. For instance, in NYC yesterday, while looking in the electronics stores for a Mophie Air, I was offered a crap iPhone 4 charger for $99. When I walked away, they shouted lower prices – $60, then $50 – still too much for that junk. While you won’t get such aggressive price adjustments at Walmart or your local restaurant, there are local deals out there if you are willing to look beyond your usual spots. In the day of extreme couponing and a necessary incentive for making every dollar count, location services can be a great tool to help you save money.

A great way for vendors to alert you to nearby specials is by the use of geofencing technology. When you walk into a vendor’s perimeter, you would be able to automatically check in if you linger for X number of minutes. This is something Mayormaker gives you on the iPhone, but to do it for every business would task even the best battery on a smartphone to the point of losing charge within an hour. Processing this information and consuming it needs to become less compute intensive or needs to wait until battery technology advances. Databases of homes and businesses need to expand so that everything is already waiting to make the checkin experience as quick and easy as possible. Some online locations don’t match the real business locations, either because someone checked in after walking away from a place, or the business moved. Databases need to be verified for accuracy by comparing to other location services in order to become reliable.

Events are also something that can benefit from location technology. Walking into a city should be able to let you know what’s going on. Wouldn’t it be great to walk into NYC and find out what’s going on that day? A convention on your favorite interest or a food festival could be right around the corner.

Non-entertaining events such as construction or accidents could be beneficial for those driving into an area. Problems such as driving while using a smartphone can be overcome with the use of simplified interfaces. We use GPS all the time on the road, watching a display for images of where our next turn is. Something similar for other applications needs to be developed to make our travel experience safe as well as productive. Through a friend who is an iphone novice, I found a free GPS application called Waze that lets you check in once you arrive at a destination. This is a good example of combining the mature mapping tech with the newer checkin tech. It also keeps in mind the idea that there is something else going on between checkins. There are gaps in what destinations can be checked into at times, which makes me wish the default Maps app would do turn by turn paths and checkins, but for the most part it works nicely. Along the same lines, apps like TripIt will help you describe what’s going on between your destinations, though I don’t believe they have integrated location services into their service. Something where your safe arrival at an airport or attraction would help others feel better about your travel. Passing through an area might let you know about a great deal on lower gas prices through the Cheap Gas app, integrated the same way Boxcar ties in apps that deal in notifications.

What if you could tell when a group of friends is nearby? Wouldn’t that trip into the city be even better if it could be shared with an even bigger group, possibly making new connections as you join two sets of friends together? Or if you come into an event and meet someone you’d like to remain in contact with, seeing their profile show up as part of the event list would make reconnecting easier afterwards.

Getting tips from people more familiar about an area also makes a visit more enjoyable. Most location services feature Tips, but that information is volunteered ahead of time. Services like Localmind or Donteat.at can help you make smarter choices that keep you out of uncomfortable situations or even the ER for eating the wrong thing. They let you actively or automatically ask about the place you are visiting to get more information from the crowd than what has already been put out there.

In the end, to summarize all this activity to help see how you’ve spent your time, there are aggregator services like Memolane that pull your social life from different sites to help make a more complete picture. Aggregating this data together makes it easier to scan and look for common likes.

What have you done lately to promote location services to those that don’t yet use them? The more the merrier, so having more friends show up in your friends list for location services means that you’ll know more about what’s going on around you from trusted sources. Get someone started with Facebook Places and introduce them to Foursquare for better integration. The system doesn’t work if you’re one of the few using it.

Keep in mind most smartphone alert systems are not compatible with this, potentially throwing up too many alerts to make this useful. Information overload from advertising and friends needs to be solved before this can all be an attractive tool to everyone.

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