Icebreaking for Geeks — and More

Feel tongue-tied at conferences? These gizmos will do your networking for you.

In a crowded hotel conference room, Paul Patti's name tag is talking to me:

Hi, Ian!
— VOIP
— Monty Python

It's telling me that Patti, an instructor for Concord Communications Inc., enjoys Monty Python and has expertise in voice over Internet protocol (something I sorely need).

We're schmoozing electronically at a Concord user's group conference in Boston. The technology that's letting us do so is from a company called nTAG Interactive. It's both ingenious and sort of scary: After the electronic tags are populated with job, interest, and agenda information, they use infrared and radio frequencies to note session attendance, exchange electronic business cards, and broadcast interests to conversation partners.

Founded in 2002 by Rick Borovoy and George Eberstadt and based on Borovoy's research at MIT's Media Lab, nTAG is one of several companies that have sprung up to make conferences — notoriously difficult places to meet the right people — more efficient. The idea is to cut to the conversational chase and, in Borovoy's words, free "trapped social capital."

Smart name tags are in their infancy, and they're not perfect. At 6 ounces, including four AAA batteries, the nTAG device is kinda heavy. It communicates only with other badges no farther than 6 feet away. And at rental fees of $40 to $120 per tag, per event, it's pricey.

And while the information-swapping feature seems sexy — icebreaking for geeks! — very few of the attendees here actually take advantage of that. More useful are the personalized agenda and the ability to easily exchange electronic business cards. NTAG emails the cards later, as well as the identity of anyone we've spoken to for more than 45 seconds. Conference organizers, meanwhile, can break down attendance by demographic, or identify the so-called Kevin Bacons who act as the biggest social nexuses.

This ability to see who's around you holds the largest potential — and hurdle — for these tags. When technology consultant Clay Shirky tried nTAG at the Pop!Tech conference, he thought that the "autistic" suggestions of common interests "lacked social subtlety." But then he learned from his tag that a conversational partner had just spoken to the writer Virginia Postrel, someone he desperately wanted to meet. "That had this kind of electric effect," Shirky says. "That is genuinely useful social information that can't be otherwise conveyed."

There are delicate privacy issues with all these devices, of course. Corbin Ball, a meeting-industry technology consultant, says he was shocked when he returned to his hotel with his conference tag (from Shockfish, an nTAG rival) and suddenly could see who was in the rooms around him — others who also had forgotten to turn tags off. "It will completely freak some people out," says Ball.

But in Boston, I've just made a good new contact. "It's a new way of interacting," says Patti. "It kind of invites me to intrude on your space." He holds his tag out to mine, and we each press a button to exchange cards.

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