GPS has latched on to society, and it’s not going anywhere. We use it to get directions and track our runs. We even check in at restaurants and stores, charting our progress around town for the world to see.
But there’s one aspect of global positioning that hasn’t really taken off yet: person-to-person tracking. We’ll announce when we’re out to dinner, but we tend to get sheepish when a service like Google Latitude shares our exact position, all the time, around town. And that means we lose something very important that GPS can offer us: spontaneity.
“It could be magical to always know who is around you, whether that’s knowing that your friend who you haven’t seen in six weeks is in a cafe next door, or that the woman sitting next to you on the plane is from your tiny hometown in Wisconsin,” Evan Reas tells Co.Design. He’s the CEO and co-founder of a new iPhone/Android app called Circle.
Circle doesn’t do anything fundamentally different from existing tracking products on the market. (It scans your Facebook account to find registered users, then it shares your coordinates while looking up theirs.) What Circle does differently is entirely in presentation.
Whereas most apps are essentially full-screen Google Maps with your friends on top, Circle’s UI completely de-emphasizes the map. It’s but a small icon on the homescreen, and your eye basically looks past it to the more important categories: what friends are in your area, and what network acquaintances (maybe fellow alumni or members of your bowling league) are around.
“We wanted to be the app that will quickly and simply give you the answer to ‘Who’s around me right now that I care about?’ anytime, anywhere,” writes Reas. And that “who is” rather than “where is” philosophy is seen at the core of the home screen. Rather than covertly stalking a blip on a map, you’re looking right at your friends. Your immediate introduction is actually quite human; it’s a form of face-to-face meeting. The secondary possibility is that you can use a gridded map to track them down. (The app also has a messaging component built in, so you won’t need to surprise your friend.)
Circle is facing a steep climb to success. It’s too early to know if this person-oriented interface alone is enough to make people comfortable sharing their precise longitude/latitude on the globe. But more importantly, it needs to convince a whole lot of people to download the app and register so that your friends actually sign up for the service (so we all can figure out if this actually feels right).
For now, Circle is a promising approach to a nut that no one has been able to crack. And if we ever want good old face-to-face interaction to make a comeback in (anti)social networking, it’s a nut most definitely worth cracking.