At the recent IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS) in Minneapolis, Dong Xuan (associate professor of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University) introduced a smartphone App called eShadow that uses nearby wireless networks and smartphones’ wireless communications to tell users that a friend who also uses the software is nearby, and even gives directions to that friend’s location. At first blush this seems a natural extension of social trends like foursquare and Yelp, which utilize the geolocation of an individual to interact with others online. Social networking is about interacting, so meeting in the “real world” would seem an obvious next step.
Actually, before I thought about that, I had to force myself to get past the similarity of Xuan’s name to Don Juan, and how a character like Juan could really benefit from an App that helped him pick up women. Is it just me, or does it seem that quite often the name given of a scientist in a study being covered in the news contains an irony fitting to that particular study? If it’s a study on mating habits of Chimps, the lead scientist’s name will be Ben Dover or something like that. I haven’t done a formal study on this, but one should be done. The coincidence seems unlikely. Anyway, back to the actual topic…
The researchers working on eShadow stated that their biggest challenge had to do with efficient use of the wireless signals. They had to develop algorithms that let the phones send and receive signals quickly to keep from clogging up the network. When tested on the Ohio State campus, eShadow took an average of 25 seconds to connect two users who were 20 to 50 yards apart, and 35 seconds for seven users.
Apparently Xuan suggested a military application for the software, allowing soldiers to locate each other on the battlefield. I’m a bit skeptical about the usefulness there, as it would also allow the enemy to easily lead soldiers into traps with a bit of hacking.
Despite my normal skeptical eye through which I peek at most new products (software included) I think that Xuan and his team are on to something with eShadow. As someone who’s developed websites professional for a bunch of years now, I’ve done a lot of following of online technology as it develops, and a lot of speculation on where it’s likely to lead to. What I’ve seen is that the success of a device/application is almost always directly connected to the ease of the interface. It doesn’t end up mattering if there’s a point to doing something – as long as you can make it easy to do, people will do it. (Twitter comes to mind.) A good example is the success of devices like the iPhone with touchscreens, over the old BlackBerry and Newton. The iPhone improved on the miniscule buttons that hamfisted guys like me couldn’t manage. But many of the tasks are the same, while admittedly a bit more developed.
What eShadow is hinting at is the world where we can automate a good deal of our societal interactions. We’ve seen this in science fiction for some time. There’s already been a progression from desktop to laptop to handheld, and the next logical steps are visual and then actual brain interfaces. (And people are definitely already working on that.)
My hope is that by the time software like eShadow is ubiquitous, that someone takes into consideration the role that chance plays in social interactions. Software can easily match up likes and dislikes, sorting us like a bunch of library index cards, but with us humans it’s not always the best way to find others that we hit it off with. It could be that your next best friend or partner for life is someone who has opposite viewpoints and tastes, or even somewhere in the spectrum between same and opposite. Once we have algorithms that can make sense of us on that level, things will really begin to change in interesting ways.
If you’d like to learn more:
E-Shadow: Lubricating Social Interaction using Mobile Phones