Itching to spray a wall with graffiti but not down with the whole civil disobedience thing? All together now: There's an app for that.
Wallit is a new location-aware app which advertises itself with the tagline "walls for places." Essentially it lets its users place a digital Post-it note, or an invisible piece of graffiti if you like, on a virtual "wall" connected to a real place on Earth. Despite its newness, it just added a social element to version 1.1 called "super walls" that links the tags for similar places around the world, so you can leave your mark at a local Starbucks and also see what other folks at the 15,000 other Starbucks venues around the world are saying. It's free, silly, lovable and a taste of the reality-blurring that's about to become part of our normal existence.
Wallit calls itself the "only geo-social app connecting people to places through one-of-a-kind multimedia messages on augmented reality walls," and, breathless hyperbole aside, that actually sums it up. Unlike many augmented reality apps that let you see pre-embedded tags in the real world such as directions to the nearest metro station (handy when visiting a new city) or adverts for nearby stores, its purpose is almost the opposite because it lets you record a tag and digitally mark the real-world location where you left it with text, video clips, or audio recordings. Other users of the app can see the tags when they're at that place themselves, maybe choosing to reply or just add to the stack of messages.
It's pretty neat, and probably a niche fun app appealing to a few users. But with the new Super Walls feature, Wallit has actually tapped into something important—perhaps the same kind of shared experience that propels social sharing apps like Instagram. Because you can tag one place, but see the tags at similar global locations it's effectively allowing you to broadcast to and observe a group of people around the world who may be feeling or thinking similar things to you, evoked by a place or event. For example, the video suggests using Wallit while you're in the line for a new iPad:
The importance of this may escape you for a moment, but as Wallit's press release suggests, imagine the kind of social interactions that could occur on the Super Wall for a football game, or perhaps rival basketball games during March Madness. Fans can "move the real-time 'smack-talk' to the virtual walls in arenas," Wallit suggests, adding a very social, location-based twist to the sort of banter that sometimes happens on Twitter or Facebook. But by encapsulating this simple use case in a stand-alone app Wallit is, again like Instagram, delivering an experience that's set apart from the usual flurry of different and distracting status updates on Facebook. It's also maybe more social than systems like Latitude and Find My Friends because it requires no log-in, has richer information to share, and may be much more spontaneous.
Who knows if it'll become a huge success, but there's a germ of a clever idea in here that could tap into the zeitgeist.
And there's also something else important going on. Wallit's all about leaving a virtual, social tag somewhere in the same way you'd sign a hotel guest book, or the little logbook found at the top of some mountain peaks. But it's digital, and thus each logbook can be interconnected. Which means the social experience of being in one place on the planet is blurred by the augmented reality aspect of the technology. Imagine sitting in downtown Boston, but your social encounter is actually being fueled by what's going on in Paris. That's a bit of a brain-twister...and because the app is on a small smartphone screen you'll really have to use your imagination to feel this telepresence-like sensation. But one day AR won't be on a handheld screen, if firms like Vuzix, Google, and perhaps Microsoft have their way—it'll be goggle-based, and thus much more immersive. Social sharing is going to get very interesting.
And then there's the other thing to think about: Wallit owns its digital walls, and creates and curates them to prevent too many competing walls from appearing in one location. That means it can approve one at, say, your local Starbucks (as long as it doesn't infringe any trademarks or copyright, presumably)...and Starbucks has no say in the matter. In fact this is Wallit's potential business model, with the founder explaining to Reuters that if Starbucks wants to "claim" their walls, they can license them from Wallit and thus collect user data and deliver content to the wall as a form of hyper-local PR.
That seems clever, but relies on Wallit becoming super-popular and ubiquitous, with an active and diverse userbase to populate its empty walls...otherwise Starbucks would simply build its own similar AR app, perhaps integrated into a digital loyalty card scheme. That could cause fragmentation, with every brand trying something similar.
Ultimately though, in the same way Twitter and Facebook have emerged as peer social networks serving slightly different needs, an AR app like Wallit will achieve broad appeal and brands will pay to use it. And that's when apps that blur the difference between real reality and augmented reality will quickly get really important.
[Image: Flickr user artwork_rebel]