Michael Chasen is pitching me his new app, SocialRadar, and it sounds a little creepy. "I want you to walk into a room and know how you’re connected to everyone in there, because all of that information is in the cloud," he says. "If you go an event, it will tell you, ‘There’s 12 people here you know. Three are friends, four are coworkers, two are people from college, one is a guy you ran into on the street, and three are friends of friends. And one just got a promotion, and another one just got married.'"
It sounds creepy, but it also sounds supremely useful. Because who among us wouldn’t want that leg up when trying to navigate a room? And who among us hasn’t wondered if our smartphones could serve as a digital icebreaker? (SocialRadar also enables chatting within the app.) "No one to date has successfully integrated location data with social data," says Chasen.
Many apps focus on integrating location and social data in useful ways. Foursquare, with its new check-in app Swarm, has long allowed users to check in or learn about locations and share that information with their social network. And long before Tinder, dating apps like the now-defunct MeetMoi offered the chance to use proximity and technology to spontaneously bring people together.
But Chasen says that the combination of features offered by SocialRadar are unique, and that not until this year was smartphone technology advanced enough to make an app like SocialRadar truly useful. Chasen wanted the app to be able to share location data in the background, even when the app wasn’t running—that way, a serendipitous encounter could be facilitated even when your smartphone is asleep in your pocket. But that required a few innovations in hardware and software first.
Two features of newer versions of iOS are key to making SocialRadar work well without aggressively draining the iPhone battery: something called "significant distance," and something called "geofencing." To run GPS constantly will drain your iPhone battery in an hour, says Chasen; "significant distance" enables your phone to only share location data if you move, well, a significant distance. And "geofencing" allows you to define a specific area, and to program the phone to share location data only if someone enters or exits that area. Both features enable programmers to make apps like SocialRadar powerful but not impractically power-hungry.
Next-generation batteries, more efficient algorithms to compute location, as well as the likes of Apple’s motion-sensing M7 chip—these, too, have all combined to make now (arguably) the moment for an app like SocialRadar to flourish. The app debuted on iPhone a few months ago and Google Glass a few weeks ago; an Android version is forthcoming in the next few weeks. And the app has just gone global in the Anglophone world; it's now available as of late May in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Early traction has been good, says Chasen: "hundreds to thousands" of people download it each day.
Like any social networking app, SocialRadar faces the chicken-and-egg conundrum: more users makes the app more useful, but users will only join if the app is already useful. Chasen has figured out a clever workaround for the problem. Although the app will serve you most fully if both you and your acquaintance across the room have downloaded SocialRadar and chosen to share information through it, the app will also pull publicly available location data from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and other networks. In other words, the app can help you connect to people who aren’t even aware of the app yet, provided they've shared location data through another, more widely-used service.
Chasen has a solid track record as a tech entrepreneur. He’s a cofounder of Blackboard, the e-learning company he cofounded in 1997, ultimately selling it for $1.7 billion. He retired from Blackboard in December of 2012, and by January his wife was already saying, "You’ve got to get out of the house and do something, you’re driving me crazy," Chasen says. So he dove into SocialRadar as his next venture.
The years he spent with Blackboard hanging around college campuses offered one of the best ways to catch a glimpse of the coming technological waves: He saw as students stopped bringing TVs into their dorms; he saw as they adopted Facebook in droves—and he saw as they began to share their locations with friends and others.
Should entrepreneurs wanting to get a glimpse of future trends hang out on college campuses, then? "That sounds a little weird," admits the 42-year-old. "But if you’re trying to do something in the consumer market, having some connection to the university market space helps." Whether SocialRadar will be widely adopted by college students themselves remains to be seen; at press time, the preferred social lubricant on most college campuses remained alcohol.