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Plugging into Reality: APIs to connect the physical world

27th July 09

Author: Richard Schatzberger, Director of Creative Technology, BBH New York

This weekend saw the first Town Holler, a meeting (and pub crawl) of foursquare Mayors in New York City. From the photos, it may just look like another fun Saturday evening, but what’s special about Town Holler is that it’s whole reason for being is to create a direct physical world connection using digital platform. Organized by Conrad Lisco (@conradlisco) and myself (@schatz), our goal was to use an existing digital platform to facilitate and enhance a physical world experience, in real time, which, to be frank, should be the goal of any great digital creation.

With so many checkins we had to bring our own power supply

With so many checkins we had to bring our own power supply

Imagine five years ago, where a party organizer would, perhaps, illegally take over a warehouse in Brooklyn and throw a rave. Well, using foursquare, we (playfully) squatted on a social platform and threw the party on top of their digital service. We didn’t have to build any software, spend any money, ask permission (the foursquare creators did come along for the journey), or risk being arrested! We hooked into a passionate group of people who had the tools to connect in their pockets–on their iPhones–leveraging someone else’s software and data to curate an event which blended the digital and physical worlds.

Who stole the Mayor this time?

Who stole the Mayor this time?

As the number of new services, applications and volume of data grow, we need to stop thinking about how we can create another thing for people to install and launch, but how we start using the mobile device as a human API into the digital world to curate tangible interactions which collide with the twitter/facebook/foursquare/newyorktimes/sphere. That we were on to something was evidenced in everyone’s smiles all afternoon, as FourSquare became and even more fluid and dynamic real time tool for connecting.

Why Foursquare?
Foursquare is a location based service which lets friends know where friends are, you simply check into a place when you arrive and foursquare notifies your foursquare friends and/or twitter followers. It’s a very simple idea, but it goes much further than that. Foursquare has built in a killer competition feature giving people a reason to use it constantly throughout their day. In a world of disposable iPhone applications, this is where new services porno asyali should be heading. The more you check in, the more points you get. You compete against your friends and everyone else in your city. If you check in the most times at one place you become the Mayor, and as you progress around the city, you unlock badges. As The New York Times noted, describing the event, ‘it’s as much about competing as about meeting’.

Checking in always rewards you with points, and you may just become Mayor

Checking in always rewards you with points, and you may just become Mayor

This model of micro-rewards makes the application more vibrant, and the fact that is based in the moment, not the past made FourSquare the perfect platform to hijack. For an in-depth look into foursquare check out the Mashable report ‘Foursquare: Why It May Be the Next Twitter.

Don’t look down.

Don't miss the conversation while you tweet

Don't miss the conversation while you tweet

For those at the event checking in, competing for Mayorship was only the start of how their conversations and networks expanded in real time. Each of us has a digital aura emitting live data. It’s this data which excites me most, removing the idea of an offline world. Conversations spilled out into Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr with responses coming back during the the same conversation. (Serendipitously, foursquare became a trending topic on Twitter’s homepage at our second stop). This made the spoken conversations much more enjoyable as we were all plugged into the world’s largest amplifier.

The key here though is not to interrupt the conversation with the technology, which happened every time someone went heads down, unlocked their phone and launched an app to push the conversation out to their network. The iPhone was the device of choice, but we may have been better with Palm Pre’s or Android based devices which have put much more focus on their home screens and notification systems.

Here you can see all the services running on the homescreen of the HTC Hero

Here you can see all the services running on the homescreen of the HTC Hero

This is one of the most under utilized and most valuable pieces of real estate on mobile devices, and is the gateway to creating interactions which become much less intrusive in social settings. So as we all race to make the next mobile application and service let’s really think about the need for a full blown applications, can we find new ways to expose information so someone can continue their activity without having to dig deep inside their device to fetch it?

Town Holler NYC is just the start of experiments hijacking digital platforms and putting them in face to face situations, so follow @townholler to hear about what’s coming next. And a huge thanks to Dennis (@dens) and Naveen (@naveen) for creating my new favorite service, foursquare

Contact

If you’re involved in anything that brings the physical and digital worlds together, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at BBH Labs (see below).

richard.schatzberger@bbh-usa.com; @schatz

conrad.lisco@gmail.com; Strategy Director, 5th Finger; @conradlisco

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