A new app is looking to succeed in the ambient location market where others have failed. SocialRadar provides real-time information about the people around you. It connects to the user's Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Instagram and Google+ accounts to pull in data about their whereabouts and recent activities.
Ambient location apps are not a new idea. There are plenty available, but there is a general feeling that they have failed to fulfill their promise. Moreover, no one ambient location app has ever moved into the mainstream in the same way that social apps like WhatsApp, Instagram or SnapChat have.
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SocialRadar hopes to change that. The app tells users which of their contacts or connections are close-by, how they know each other and what those connections have been up to. It is proactively touting its privacy credentials, which give users control over what information they share.
"This is an app that will be commonplace and on everyone's smartphone within 3-5 years," predicts SocialRadar's President & CEO Michael Chasen, who was the founder of online education platform Blackboard that sold in 2012 for US$1.64 billion. "It's not dissimilar to Google Maps in the sense that, before that, no-one used to carry around a map or an atlas in their pocket unless they needed to."
These are lofty ambitions and comparisons, but are not necessarily unfounded. SocialRadar has raised $12.75 million in Series A funding and has little in the way of immediate competition. It has been downloaded over 22,000 times since being soft-launched in the US at the end of January, with the firm yet to begin its marketing or user acquisition activities. Instead, the company has used this initial roll-out as a means of gaining user feedback and making improvements.
The idea for the app was conceived while Chasen was working at Blackboard. "I was spending a lot of time on college campuses and seeing trends before they became mainstream, like Facebook at Harvard," he explains to Gizmag. "A lot of students were starting to share location like other social information. I was fascinated by the fact that there are a billion smartphones in the world that act as location beacons and all this social information in the cloud but no-one had combined them."
SocialRadar works on the premise that the user can walk into a bar and use the app to immediately find out information about who is there, how you are connected to them and what they have been up to recently. When users open it, the main screen provides an overview of how many people are close-by and how many of them are friends, friends of friends and favorites. The distance to search can be set from the main screen, as can a user's visibility settings, with options of public, friends-only, anonymous and invisible.
Users that are close-by can be shown in a list with snippets of information or on a map. A major benefit of SocialRadar is that it doesn't necessarily need other people to be registered in order for them to be displayed. As well as its own data, it uses information that is readily available from other services, such as check-ins and geo-tagged updates from Facebook and Twitter. When asked how many connections are shown in this way, Chasen was enthused. "It was more than I thought," he says, "Even when I was the only person on SocialRadar I could see about 80 of my friends on the map."
The ability for a user to see where all their connections are at a glance naturally raises some questions about privacy, but Chasen points out that SocialRadar doesn't use any data that isn't already available to the user. Furthermore, he says, privacy has been considered from the very beginning by a dedicated team of security experts. He notes, though, that when offered the choice, users have tended to leave themselves showing publicly on SocialRadar.
"A lot of people are obviously talking about privacy," he says. "It isn't so much an issue about sharing though, its about control. The top feature people have requested for SocialRadar is control over what they share."
The similarity between SocialRadar and the initial uncomfortable visions of how Google Glass could be used to instantly identify and pull up information about the people around you is made more notable for the planned release of a Glass app. Chasen argues, however, that most of those initial concerns about Glass were to do with the potential use of facial recognition, a practice that Google has banned. What's more, he feels that it doesn't matter.
"Facial recognition is not necessary when everyone has a device in their pocket," he says. He suggests that SocialRadar should be something that people look at when they arrive somewhere and then put back in their pocket; that it should be used to provide a social heads-up, not as an immersive experience.
Chasen believes that SocialRadar provides features that other ambient location apps do not, and that this will make it a success. Though several apps will tell users when their friends check-in nearby, SocialRadar aims to provide real-time information about the people around them. It also provides a greater level of personalization and customization. Users can set filters for the type of people they want to see, such as old college classmates within 5 miles (8 km).
Whether SocialRadar will succeed or not, only time will tell. Chasen believes its broad integration with other services will help it to spread virally, and he's clearly excited about its potential. "When I started Blackboard it wasn't to raise a bunch of capital, it was because I thought the Internet could change education. This is a technology that can change the world. I'm excited to be part of it."
SocialRadar is available now for free on iOS, with Google Glass and Android apps expected this year.
The video below provides an introduction to SocialRadar.