SXSW: Why Geo-Fencing Might Change Your Life (and Make You Believe in Location Sharing)

Meet Amber Case: She's a cyborg anthropologist, questioning the ways we interact with computers, and the founder of — a second-generation location based service that uses geo-fences to redefine the concept of "checking in"

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Kris Krug

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case presented the Sunday keynote address at South By Southwest Interactive

For the casual tech user, the value of “location sharing” has thus far referred chiefly to a blinking blue dot on Google Maps and the ability to “check in” via Foursquare. In both instances, though, the location equation has left many frustrated — and even exasperated. When off Wi-Fi, Google Maps is slow and cumbersome, and it drains your battery faster than just about any other application. As for Foursquare, I’ve never quite understood the proposition. Sure, you can unlock badges, and earn a free prize from businesses in exchange for effectively uploading your consumption data, but it is unwieldy, time consuming and profoundly narcissistic. After all, the assumption here is that the world is dying to know what you’re doing This Very Second.

Over the last three years at South By Southwest (see TIME’s full 2012 SXSW coverage), a vast majority of the conversations I’ve had with developers and entrepreneurs have concerned how to use Facebook’s social graph, and the location implications of Foursquare, to more meaningful effect. And this past Saturday, I was part of one of the most inspiring brainstorms yet. Ahead of her Sunday keynote in Austin, Amber Case sat down with TIME for a detailed discussion of how her new, closely-monitored venture Geoloqi has the potential to use geo-fencing to redefine the possibilities of location-based intelligence. It was the most eye-opening, paradigm-shifting conversation I’ve had in Austin thus far this year, and we will be writing more about her concepts – and posting our full video conversation with Case – later on

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To boil down Case’s grand vision: Imagine a world in which location-based applications were used less to merely identify location than to dynamically coordinate one’s personal data and agenda, making the accessing of information easier and more efficient. A self-proclaimed cyborg anthropologist (see below), Case says she spends a great deal of time observing and considering how technology is redefining human behavior. And she, like so many of us, looked at a program like Foursquare and questioned the value of broadcasting one’s location. The typical “check in” conveys some information, yes, and allows friends to keep tabs on one another, but it is a time-consuming process, and its benefits are short-lived.

Techland has already covered various other geolocation applications looking to build buzz at this year’s SXSW — but again, much like Foursquare, both Highlight and Glancee have limited range. Essentially combining Foursquare and Facebook, these programs will broadcast information about you to other users in your vicinity and relay their information back to you. It’s about users sending signals out into the world for someone else to see.

Case, however, seems to reject that philosophy. She is far less concerned with information going out via location check-ins than in what information can be provided to the user by cross-referencing location and personal data. It was 45 minutes into our conversation that Case outlined a scenario so innovative that I thought it served as a perfect encapsulation of what Geoloqi aims to do: Imagine traveling to Los Angeles, and when you land, your smartphone instantly alerts you with information about the address that you’re heading to. More than that: Geoloqi has cross-referenced your arrival time with the bus schedule, and it alerts you about the departure time of the next bus that will get you to your destination. Now once you’re on the bus, the phone alerts you when you’re approaching your stop, allowing you to doze off during the drive in.

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Or imagine another scenario in which you get off the subway or highway, and a text message is instantly generated to your roommate or spouse, indicating that you are five minutes away from home. Or how about an alert when you enter the grocery store as to what you need to buy, or an automatically-generated text message to your boss that you are going to be late when you’re not at your desk by 9 a.m., or even a hospital that’s instantly updated with a patient’s medical records and status report when that person passes through the front door of an emergency room.

Erecting digital fences around certain locations, and then pairing your movements with self-identified data points to aid you in moving through the world — that is effectively Geoloqi’s mission. It’s not about using check-ins as posts in a social network, but about creating new systems that allow users to move more efficiently through their lives.

Case, who has attracted a loyal following thanks to her appearances at TED (below) and other conferences around the world, has been hard at work on Geoloqi for quite some time. At last year’s South By Southwest, she organized a small panel with an obtuse title – “Non-Visual Augmented Reality and the Evaporation of the Interface” – to foster ideas and collaboration as to how to make her geo-fencing visions a reality. Over the course of the last year, she’s started working with a select few clients who have been eager to apply her concepts, as well as thrown the door open in recent months to developers looking to layer geolocation onto their applications or devices. And last month, there was the big announcement that Geoloqi had developed a new algorithm to ensure that it would not run constantly on an iPhone, thus draining the device of battery power (a huge hurdle for most geolocation services).

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The implications of both the software, not to mention Case’s philosophy, are profound. And while some of her imagined scenarios are surely years away in terms of everyday use, I could not help but marvel at her sample case studies. Curating one’s location to help lead a more efficient and enjoyable life seems like a far wiser use of coordinates that unlocking a badge or winning a free coffee. Case’s keynote Sunday was titled “Ambient Location and the Future of the Interface,” and after speaking with the anthropologist at length, I couldn’t help but view the concept of an “interface” differently. Up until now, interfaces have tended to involve humans telling computers to do things. But what if you could reverse those roles and devise systems which empowered computers to store, process and compute more dynamically, using our locations to offer real-time proactive/intuitive assistance?

I was dazzled by the concept. But I guess that’s what a tech-savvy, entrepreneurial anthropologist does: Build a better tool.


Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.