Words from Where 2.0

A couple of busy weeks ago, I participated in O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 conference in Santa Clara. In 2009, I attended the same conference and wrote about it here and there.

I highly recommend this event for anyone interested in “the business of location,” as the tag line goes. And thanks to O’Reilly for posting all the keynote presentations for us to enjoy without having to don a badge. The fast-paced program is a fire hose of demos, analysis, and debuts catering to an audience peppered with software masterminds, academic GIS masters, app entrepreneurs and ethnographers.

As the conference began, we got a peek at what it’s like to be in the eye of a media storm when two presenters, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, announced their discovery of the iPhone’s hidden location file. Astrophysicist Allen and Data Visualizer Warden (both were errantly labeled “security experts” in most news stories) stumbled upon the unencrypted file in iTunes archives and posted a visualization of their data along with an application to chart your own iPhone’s journey. Reporters (some with actual spiral notebooks and elbow patches) descended upon the conference and transformed one panel into an ad hoc news conference. From my vantage point, it was fascinating to follow the stories that got the facts right (New York Times, CBS News) and those that ran inaccurate stories ripe with fear and flogging (San José Mercury News, Fox News).

When the media storm blew over, a handful of themes seemed to shape the conference:

The market of location-oriented technology is maturing and consolidating. Recent deals such as eBay’s acquisition of Where, a location-based app marketer, demonstrate that the largest internet companies are investing heavily in these new technologies. Google is marketing Google Places very aggressively to expand its market share of localized content while Facebook is launching a “Groupon killer” with Facebook Deals. As many of the speakers noted, the idea of location-oriented technology is not a new market or industry, but a new dimension that will be incorporated into all the services and platforms we interact with today.

New offerings are focusing on where you will be instead of where you are (or, more likely, were.) I never really embraced the idea of “checking in” at a location as pioneered by FourSquare and Gowalla. I didn’t quite grasp the virtual payoff of badges and leader boards — and on the receiving end, check-in announcements seem little more than declarations of “I’m here and you’re not.” The delays inherent in checking in and the mindshare required to tracking friends’ check-ins did not live up to the ideal scenarios of serendipitously meeting friends while out and about. Well, several players are trying to shift the temporal nature of this conversation from “I’m here” to “I’m thinking of going there” — in order to cater to people making plans. Ditto launched its new social location app (for iPhone only now) and started the buzz about this “future use case.”

Ditto has the cheerfully simple interface of an app designed for mobile use and the innovative intelligence of CEO Jyri Engestrom, former Google mobile products maven. Ditto’s premise is to harness your friends to help you plan activities: a question like “Anyone interested in going out for Korean food?” starts the ball rolling. The people in your social network take it from there, giving recommendations and joining in the activity itself. It’s a simple query that could be done on Facebook, Twitter, or ye olde email, but Engestrom believes we all swim in a variety of social networks and that we’d like to reserve one “pool” for real friends we’d like to see in the real world. Ditto plans to layer in content that is not location-based, such as books: “Did anyone read ‘Blink’?” It could be that Ditto’s an example of an emerging simplification of apps — the pendulum may be swinging back from broad platforms shouldering a multitude of features (Google, FaceBook) to small, zippy, fast-cycling companies sprouting one-function apps like Ditto.

Engestrom explained Ditto as “tapping into the social discovery layer” — and one of Ditto’s strengths is its conversational tone, far from the formality of an Outlook invitation. “It’s about here-ish, soon-ish, there-ish, later-ish.”

Mind-blowingly rich geo platforms are here. I remember the first time I saw Google Earth spin our planet around in high-res and dive deep into the satellite image of the house I grew up in. Incredible! And now, we are disappointed when satellite images are a few months out of date or when Google Street View hasn’t driven down that little lane in Buenos Aires yet. A new generation of gigantic geographic data has been captured, structured, and rendered into astonishing virtual landscapes. At the conference, Nokia launched Ovi Maps 3D for 20 cities outside the U.S. Nokia’s partner C3 Technologies (spun out from Saab Aerospace) flew over each city with their proprietary Lidar and imagery systems, harvesting both a 3D wireframe model of the city and photos from various angles to project onto that model. Nokia took those models and incorporated them into the Ovi platform, which began as a GPS navigation system. Once you install the browser plug-in, you can fly through the most accurate virtual city you’ve seen to date — just like Superman. The Nokia rep mentioned they may license these virtual cities out to game developers. U.S. cities are in the planning stages due to required sign-off by FAA. Till then, I’m happy to just fly around Barcelona. Another endeavor of similar magnitude is Microsoft’s Read/Write/World. I regret I haven’t played with it yet, but anything Blaise Agüera y Arcas produces is a feast for the eyes.

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