SxSW: Location, location, location

SxSW: Location, location, location

Vaughn Davis wonders just what it is that’s drawn 20,000 geeks to Austin, Texas. Serendipity and social location, apparently.

Andrea VaccariBy night, packs of the herp-derping badly dressed young men upon whom our technical future depends roam the streets of Austin in search of the best party. Not just any party – the party.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged here that a party you can get into is not a party worth getting into, so while neighbourhood bars stand empty, the technorati seek out rarer stuff – the invitation-only, unpublicised, celebrity-peopled shindig to end all dug shins.

Technology is their friend; the SxSW social schedule is online and constantly updated, and private networks circulate the scoop behind the scoop, the parties you’d like to say, the next morning, that you went to.

Human intelligence has a place too: one New York agency team has brought a young staffer to do nothing other than make sure the top dogs’ names are on the very best doors. It’s a full time job. Through a friend of a friend I’ve coat-tailed the group and enjoy the bizarrely recursive experience of following them not just into the private, bouncer-guarded bar of one of Austin’s hottest hotels, nor the roped off private room behind that, but the room that from the outside looks like a niche next to the bookshelf but actually opens onto the actual back bar.

This exclusivity is carefully crafted, of course, and it’s all part of the fierce competition tech brands fight here for the eyeballs of the 20,000 or so people who turn up to SxSW every spring in Austin, Texas.

It’s a tough battle. Today I’ve seen clowns on double-height bikes, a woman wearing a jacket studded with USB ports for geeks to recharge their devices while she discharges her sales pitch, free hot sauce, free cold beer, free massages and an alleged but not sighted (by anyone I’ve met) troupe of wifi-enabled homeless people offering to hook people up in exchange for a few coins. And this is without going inside the convention center.

The geeks are interested in the free stuff, especially T shirts, but they’re mostly impervious to the marketing as they schlep from session to session (there are 1300 to choose from) in search of what they promised their employers they’d come here to find: The Next Big Thing. In 2007 it was Twitter, in 2009 Foursquare. This year, everyone seems to agree but no one knows how to prove, it’s a whole category: ambient location.

Ambient location, gentle reader, goes beyond conventional location-based apps like Foursquare and Facebook Places by connecting you not just to fixed spots like shops, bars and the party (or possibly par-tay) to end all parties; it’s about connecting moving targets: you and other people the particular platform thinks you might find interesting.

Creeped out yet?

Andrea Vaccari (pictured), co-founder of ambient location app Glancee, overcame having a girl’s first name (context: he’s a boy) to explain to a session here just what he believes will make the category so popular.

“It’s like serendipity on steroids,” he says, because it uses your interests and preferences to connect you with interesting people who just happen to be in the neighbourhood. There are differences in the detail, but Glancee and its sisters Highlight, Banjo and others all work in a similar way. When you install the app, you allow it to access everything you’ve “liked” on Facebook, along with your friend list. It runs in the background (chewing your battery like a fat kid chews a drumstick, as they say here) then, when the platform detects two people with similar interests or friends in common nearby, it pushes each a message or, in the case of Highlight, displays their profile pic and shows exactly where they are on a map.

Still not creeped out?

When in a rare demonstration of justifying my media pass I asked Vaccari, journalist-style, what Glancee does with the digital breadcrumbs its users leave behind every step of every journey they make, his reply was frank but frankly fucking worrying: “We keep it all.”

Every bar Hansel ever visits, every shop Gretel ever stops into when she said she’d be straight home – Glancee keeps their breadcrumbs. And going by recent US experiences with Twitter, should law enforcement ever request them, they’re likely to be handed over.

Of course, there’s an upside. Glancee, Highlight and their ilk wouldn’t have been funded without one. Apps like this are pretty sticky. Seeing a message pop up that someone with 32 interests in common is sitting across the bar would pique anyone’s curiosity, and it’s that curiosity they’re banking on.

The group behaviour aspect is fascinating too. What if a billboard owner knew not just how many people walked by a site, and when, but how old they were, where they were from, and what they were into? And what if it were a digital billboard that changed to reflect the makeup of the crowd walking past? That’s some Minority Report shit right there, people.

But it’s also some very creepy shit indeed.

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