As GenCon approaches, my thoughts keep wondering about how emerging and existing technologies could be used to make the convention/event experience more enjoyable. I took a high-level look at using location-based social technology before in Leveraging Geolocation for Roleplaying Games, but I wanted to explore the technology at the implementation level for gaming conventions and events.
Why Go Geosocial?
Why should gaming events even bother with adding a geosocial element to their business model? I think there are several valuable reasons to do so: free advertisement, added value, and social-space unification.
Businesses achieve free advertisement every time someone posts about them (assuming it’s positive) to their favorite social network. I personally believe traditional advertisements are becoming obsolete. The real marketing power is getting everyone to talk about your product/location (favorably). Building a game into a location-based mobile web app that broadcasts updates to social networks is a good way to do that.
I believe the most important reason to look into developing a geosocial social network is because it bridges the gap between the online and physical social-spaces. There has been a social disconnect between the two since the inception of virtual communities. Becoming too involved the virtual world creates real-life problems. It is common enough now that we have entertainment that parodies those issues (i.e. The Guild). Geosocial apps unify the virtual and actual social worlds.
Issues with Current Geosocial Apps
The current versions of the popular geosocial applications, Gowalla and Foursquare, have limited or absent support for events. This is because they have naturally built their applications to identify permanent locations (i.e. venues), not events (recurring or otherwise limited by time). Gowalla recently added limited support for events, but they have a 12 hour limitation.
I imagine it will only be a matter of time (within the year) before both apps, or new apps, have improved support for events. For now though, it would require a partnership between the app and the event to pull off a truly engaging and useful implementation. Besides, when you’re using Foursquare to check into a location, you don’t want the search results choked full of events from the last few (or next few) years; it would make the application difficult to use in a city with an active event schedule.
A Possible Solution
Beyond coming to an agreement with the software developer of an existing application, the organizing entity of an event could develop and maintain their own application. With Foursquare’s or Gowalla’s API, the event application could even interface with those apps, taking advantage of the power of the existing software (and keep the overhead low).
I think the best solution would be to develop an application built from the ground up with time-limited events in mind. The application would detect the user’s location (either via GPS, cell tower triangulation, or IP address) find nearby venues and check for current events happening at those venues. The user would then be able to select from the listed events and check in.
Event managers would be able to tie their events to multiple locations, all of which could be active simultaneously or scheduled for different times. This feature would be useful when an event overflows from the primary venue to adjacent locations such as from a convention center to connected hotels. It would also allow managers to schedule recurring events ahead of time.
A geosocial event application should also allow for nested events. For instance, GenCon isn’t just one event; it is a collection of hundreds of events happening in different rooms of the venue (and connected locations) at different times around the clock for four days. To be truly useful, the applications should allow a user to not only check into the primary event but also the multitudes of events functioning under the umbrella of the convention.
Processing Voluminous Events
Because the accuracy of most devices are not really granular enough to recognize two tables sitting a couple of feet apart from each other in an exhibit hall, nested events become difficult to navigate through after more than a handful are occurring simultaneously. However, I see two excellent, but involved, answers to this problem.
The first answer is for event managers to provide registration information to the app. The application would cross-reference the user’s ID with events they have registered for and provide a custom list of sub-events to select from. The enterprising software developer would supply a turnkey registration system for events (upload a formatted excel spread and voila!).
The second answer would allow for more than just events requiring registration but would require more than just a user’s mobile device (until hardware manufacturers build it in). It would also require more logistical overhead of the application isn’t owned by the event itself. The event would issue RFID enabled badges and set up scanners at each event.
Precision RFID Check-in
RFID stands for Radio Frequency IDentification. It is most often used to track inventory, but it can also be used for access management and human identification. There are certainly concerns about privacy and security when employing RFID, but in this context I believe those concerns can be mitigated by not becoming too eager to embed or track any more information than necessary (userID & access level is all that is needed).
Depending on the specific RFID frequencies and scanners used, tags can be read from distances ranging from just a few inches (~2 centimeters) to more than forty feet (~12 meters). Long range readers would be useful for checking visitors into large, general areas (i.e. exhibit halls, ballrooms, & floors) while short range readers would be more effective at checking visitors in at individual booths or tables.
I can two layers of implementation here. At the macro level are scanners that cover large areas that would be most useful for the convention organizers to track. These areas would have long range scanners that are networked to a few workstation/servers operated by the convention that would process the incoming data and communicate with the event web application.
At the micro level would be the individual booth/event readers. To reduce costs, the convention could charge connection (if the vendor provides their own scanner) and/or equipment rental fees. Vendors would also have to bring their own computer (a netbook might be even be sufficient), run the communication software, and connect to the convention’s network.
A recent example implementation of such technology is the RFID enabled tags that Facebook handed out to attendees at their F8 Developer’s Conference a couple of weeks ago.
Additional Benefits of RFID
Aside from the primary benefit of precision location check-in, investing in RFID would have operational benefits too. Visitors and vendors would not need to keep track of even tickets anymore; simply checking in with your badge could interface with event registration records. Access to specific levels of visitors (press, vendors, VIPs) could be managed by RFID scanners. Visitors could use their badges to get event information (such as directions on how to get there) from information kiosks. Visitors could even pay for items with system credit stored on their account and accessed by RFID.
The information gathered about visitor traffic could help convention organizers streamline and improve the layout of events. Does that free gaming lounge actually attract more visitors, or is it a waste of time, space, and equipment? Would placing two large vendors at different ends of the exhibit hall improve the flow of traffic by eliminating choke points? These are a few of the questions that could be answered using the data collected by RFID scanners.
Other Possible Features
In addition to posting information on the event application itself, updates could also be broadcast across other social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Gowalla, or MySpace. The more visibility the convention (and its app) has, the better. I would also implement shared logons such as OpenID or OAuth allowing users to use their Facebook, Google, Twitter, or other accounts to log into the convention app. This would remove a barrier for many people to use the application due to their unwillingness to create yet another login.
It would also be great if users could share their experiences by uploading photos, video, audio, and by capturing public Tweets containing hash tags associated with the convention. Some very cool visualization could be programmed into this part of the application by finding associations between locations, frequency, and tags.