Sunday, March 21, 2010

Location location

We seem to love telling people where we are, especially if it's somewhere cool. Facebook and Twitter are full of such messages but with most mobile devices having built-in GPS we soon won't have to write our location updates - they'll be automatically included in the message (as long as we choose that option). For those who love to tell the world of their every movement there is a horde of location tagging services and the market leader of these seems to be foursquare.

I haven't signed up for foursquare yet. I'm tempted, at least to see what the fuss is about, but I am slightly worried it'll require too much attention and time to be worthwhile (however just writing about it here makes me feel obliged to get started). The idea of foursquare and a large flock of similar apps is that you check in to whatever location you happen to be in (especially restaurants and bars it seems) and preferably make a comment for the benefit of future visitors. Basically a sort of virtual guest book. There's also a competitive element in that you can win points and badges for being the first at a particular place or a regular visitor. Some restaurants and bars will even provide a free drink to anyone who shows they've earned enough points.

One interesting article about this trend is by M G Siegler on Tech Crunch (Check-in fatigue) where he attends a conference in Austin, Texas, and attempts to log his movements on all the available location-tagging services. This of course proves too much and by the end he's down to using the two main contenders for supremacy in the location boom, foursquare and Gowalla.

The main problem is that there are too many similar apps and little compatibility between them. Add in the fact that most location enthusiasts are also active in Facebook and Twitter and it becomes very time-consuming to keep all updated. We need interoperability between all these services to get any sustainable use from them. In the end you have to choose a small number of apps that suit you and stick to them even if it means disappointing some friends.But the ideal is some way of getting everything in to one platform.

The other article on this theme is from The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Will your college be covered in virtual grafitti?. Here there is concern at how students are labelling various campus locations on foursquare with critical comments. When you "check in" to a particular department or building you can leave a virtual comment that other visitors pick up on their cellphones as they approach the location. That could include criticism of a teacher for example without the victim even being aware of the virtual grafitti. At the same time the university can carry out some official location tagging providing useful tips to visitors as they move around the campus. There are definitely opportunities for education here especially with location tagging and augmented reality.

Location based services are only just beginning to burst on to the mainstream market and there's a bit of a wild west flavor just now with hundreds of wannabe services vying for our attention. In the end we'll get some kind of order and interoperability but for now it's chaotic, confusing and very innovative.

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