What are the business applications for mobile discovery?


Nintendo’s StreetPass feature for the 3DS is an example of wireless mobile discovery. Image via nintendo.com

There is so much technology splashing across our lives that sometimes it's hard to sort the irrelevant from the relevant and the silly from the substantial.

This is particularly true when you're watching for business-impacting technology. Technologies that first look like a toy can turn out to be the ones that will re-define our business a decade later. 

Nascent technology

I smile when I think back to a conversation I had with a group of top engineers in the mid 1990s.

Our conversation over a lunch break turned to the potential impact of the Internet, which few at the table had prior experience with. Much lively scoffing ensued when a geeky guy at our table (okay, it was me) suggested the Internet might eventually be a mainstay of the business world. I can still hear the howls of laughter of one responder: "But it’s a toy! How could most businesses ever really use it?!"

Of course, I had the advantage of having some prior Internet exposure to form my opinion and time proved him wrong.

In the amazing arena of technology transformation, sometimes the unthinkable happens, and core business technologies spring from what appear to be trivial technology uses at first blush. Often, the media fanfare can clue us in to the next hot "toy" technology that will eventually impact the business world. But sometimes the fanfare ascends to premature hype that doesn't pan out. And just as often, the media fanfare is understated for an emerging hot technology.

Nintendo StreetPass: wireless social discovery

This is the case of the subtly positioned and softly hyped StreetPass feature in the Nintendo 3DS game system.

The mobile-discovery feature allows two 3DS users to trade information simply by walking past one another, without any awareness at the time the automatic tradeoff occurs. You can acquire Miis (customizable characters or avatars often representing one's self), messages or other elements. Your 3DS can even be asleep in your pocket or backpack, comfortably tucked away, and carry out this feat. When you get home at the end of the day, you may find that a number of Miis have jumped on your 3DS and traveled home with you.  

StreetPass can be turned off or allowed application by application, but in full blown unchecked mode it opens up a whole new style of connecting with others — converging digital and geographic proximity.

Recently, I talked to some 3DS packers and picked up the following insights. If you cruise Rivertown Mall on any given day, you are likely to scoop up a half dozen or dozen Miis making the leap into your digital velcro. A quick walk around CMU's campus in Mt. Pleasant will give you a handful. And striding between classes at MSU may pull in dozens that are stuck to you.

There are a number of other mobile technologies that offer somewhat similar if less-elegantly-packaged capabilities. Facebook, for example, has supported geographic shout outs of a type for quite some time. 

Perhaps that's why StreetPass didn't garner more buzz as a transformational technology when it was rolled out. But it does what all technologies do when they are about to scale up rapidly in adoption. It took something that was sort of being done already and made it phenomenally easy, kind of fun, pretty cool and practical enough that the payoffs can start to be perceived. Nintendo's 3DS allows Miis to make the leap silently and invisibly from Mii to Mii when people pass by each other, similar to fleas hoping from one shoulder to another.

Now that's cool! And powerful!

Business applications

Picture a stroll through the trade show aisles at a business conference.

The only business cards that fly over to you as you study the booths are those that fit your desires. This person's into health care mobile applications? Yes! Let his digital business card fly over! That one is selling used lug nuts? No. Block her incoming card!

At the end of the day, back in your hotel room, you can study the characters you've collected and click on the ones you want to track down to have a coffee with the next day.

Or picture walking in to a customer meeting where your mobile device will buzz if those in the meeting with you have ever placed a prior customer service complaint. Or imagine yourself as a widget salesperson stranded in an airport terminal, and your mobile device jingles when you are near a similarly stranded business person whose job is to procure widgets.

The possibilities are endless when you start to think out of the box.

The Nintendo 3DS StreetPass function is a sign of things to come.

Whether we experience the geographic and digital convergence through a 3DS or experience some distant cousin version of it through your mobile device, it’s coming our way. 

Look around you next time you're walking through a crowded space. It’s likely all around you already — and it doesn't belong in the toy box!

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Keith Brophy, a technology entrepreneur, is CEO of award-winning Ideomed, which specializes in chronic disease self-management web and mobile tools. Previously, he was CEO and co-founder of Sagestone, president and co-owner of NuSoft Solutions and served in various technology and leadership roles at IBM, X-Rite and RCM Technologies. Keith is chairman of the advisory board for the Michigan Small Business and Technology Center, a past West Michigan entrepreneur of the year and for many years, has addressed audiences across the nation on future trends. Follow him on Twitter @streamrun