I wanted to write something about the overall gestalt, er, vibe, of this year's South by Southwest, or "South-by," as it is called here. But writing out a long list of companies and describing what they do is a long exercise that might not get the point across anyway.
So I figure maybe a better way to do it is to give you a sense of the concepts that keep coming up in the panels, on the show floor, in the blogger lounges and in the hallways. Since the really important, meaningful and appealing tech ideas usually find their way into the nice tight package of a buzzword, I decided to take that approach. So here are the buzzwords of SXSW.
You probably know this one. When using location-based services (LBS) such as Facebook Places and Foursquare on your cell phone, you "check-in" to the places you go. I checked in myself and a couple of friends from the lounge in the Driskill Hotel here in Austin, for instance. Some location-based services allow you wrap other content around your check-in: my friends and I could comment on what happened at the Driskill last night, or we could post pictures from the place.
Gamification is a way of getting people to complete a mundane task. Location-based services became famous for using games and prizes to get people to "check-in" to locations using their app. When you check in to a place using Gowalla, for example, your Gowalla passport is stamped and you pick up place-based trinkets (i.e. a margarita at a Mexican restaurant, a tour bus at a concert venue, etc.).
The Facebook game Farmville is about gamification and little else; the act of earning points by skillfully managing growing and selling crops is the draw for the wildly popular game. Another app makes a game out of creating and processing invoices. Another app gives you points for answering your emails. The list goes on and on.
SCVNGR Chief Ninja Seth Priebatsch said during a keynote here said that gaming mechanics will be the dominant theme in app development in the next decade.
Near field communication, or NFC, is a short-range radio technology that allows an "initiator" device (such as a smartphone) to send a signal to a target within a distance of 4 centimeters. NFC chips are being built into phones for mobile payments, but in the context of location-based services they could be used to automate check-ins. That is, when you want to check in at your favorite restaurant (to earn a free margarita, perhaps), you no longer have to open an app and search for the "check-in" button on your phone; your phone checks you in automatically. This alone might make people more likely to use location-based services.
A Geo-fence is a virtual perimeter around a real-world location that can be detected by a mobile device running a location-based service (LBS). Such a fence might exist around a place of business, so that when an LBS user passes in or out of that boundary, their phone might pop up a message asking the user to complete some action. For example, when you come within 20 yards of a Pizza Hut, the location-based service on your phone might ask you to check in there, or offer you a pizza coupon.
In order for location-based services to work, they must have access to a large database of places. The LBS uses this data to suggest a list of nearby places from which the user can choose to check in. The locations of these places are determined through triangulation of their locations with the ranges of Wi-Fi networks and cellular networks, and sometimes GPS networks. As the bandwidth and capacity of these networks improves, the exact locations of places will be placed far more precisely. This might allow for the inclusion of indoor places (such as shops in a shopping mall) to be included in the places databases.