The Wireless Hook-Up
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Jan 07 11:30:00 GMT 2004

Mobile services are changing the way people meet up with each other. Want to know what's going on in your immediate vicinity, or use your mobile phone to broadcast messages to people nearby? Here's how!


For the last few months, I've been working on an animation project with my friend, AJ. Recently, I called her to set up a meeting before Christmas, but our schedules conflicted every day of the week. We decided to call it off until after the holidays.

The next day, after dropping my daughter off at school, I headed over to a nearby Starbucks for an espresso doppio and a little WiFi action. After slugging down the concentrated dose of caffeine and cracking open my laptop, I noticed a familiar looking back-of-somebody's-head. It was AJ! I scooped up my stuff and sat down at her table. Turns out she had just dropped her daughter off at school and she had about 20 minutes to kill before her next appointment. It was just enough time for us to talk about our project.

After the meeting, I was thinking how nice it would be to have something on my mobile phone that would alert me when my friends were nearby. Something that used location-sensing technology, like GPS or signal-strength-triangulation. I could use it to hook up with friends like AJ. I have another friend in town, Marc, who I haven't been able to hook up with for months, because he lives on the other side of town and is as busy as I am. We’ve tried setting an actual time and date to meet, but since we are both journalists and have kids and are constantly busy, we keep breaking the date. I'm sure, however, that there have been many times when we've been within a couple of blocks of each other but didn't know about it.

Mobile phones and text messaging have changed the way people plan to meet up with each other. If you can contact someone remotely and wirelessly, there's less of a need to pin down an exact time to get together. You can keep things loose. But you still have to go to the effort of initiating contact with the person before you meet up. And this method can also backfire by keeping you from ever making firm plans to do something. What's needed is a set-it-and-forget-it system that automatically alerts you when your friends are in the vicinity.

So when I read a post in Clay Shirky's Many-2-Many blog about a New York-based outfit called Dodgeball, I became interested. Dodgeball.com has been around for about three years. It started out as a kind of restaurant and venue moblog review service, with hilarious and revealing comments (eg, "Beware of the black haired, scantily clad rockabilly-ish, dumb as nails tart behind the bar. She'll talk to her friend about nail polish and cocaine while you start and finish War and Peace waiting for her to grace you with a bitchy 'Can I help you?').

The recent release of Dodgeball 3.0, has a trio of useful location-based services. "Guide" uses a database of user-created reviews to direct you to different places around town. For example, if you can't remember the location of a certain bar you want to go to, just send a text message to nyc@dodgeball.com, along with the name of the place you want to go to. Dodgeball will send you the place's address and cross street. Even niftier, you can hunt for specific kinds of activities and amenities within a specified radius of your current location. For example, if you are interested in finding a place with darts, just send a message to Dodgeball telling it where you are and it'll return a list of nearby venues that have dartboards.

Dodgeball's second service, called "Circles," lets you tell a circle of friends where you are. All you have to do is send a message to Dodgeball with your current location, and all the people who have agreed to be in your Circle list will get a message along the lines of "Mark @ Bowery Bar (358 Bowery Fourth Ave) at 9:37pm "

The third service, Scout, is the most intriguing. To use it, you send a text message to Dodgeball telling it where you are, such as "bowery bar." Then Dodgeball will tell you about things happening around you, like shows and events. You can also let other Dodgeball users within a 10-block radius find out what you have discovered.

The problem with Dodgeball is that you have to actually type in your location to let it know where you are. Wouldn't it be nice to simply program your mobile's location-sensor to beam your coordinates to Dodgeball, so it could figure out where everyone was? It would also be nice to get Dodgeball going in Los Angeles, so I could finally hook up with my friend Marc for coffee.