Can a smartphone app enable meaningful, face-to-face conversation?
are trying to find out, with software that helps people locate their
friends in a crowd – and make new friends who share similar interests.
software, called eShadow, made its debut at the IEEE International
Conference on Distributed Computing Systems (ICDCS) last Thursday
It uses nearby wireless networks and
smartphones’ wireless communication technologies to alert users that a
friend who also uses the software is in the area – and gives directions
to that friend’s location.
Dong Xuan, associate professor of
computer science and engineering at Ohio State University, hopes that
his research group’s software will also build bridges between strangers
who share personal or professional interests.
At a business
meeting such as ICDCS, for example, the software could remind a user of a
forgotten acquaintance’s name, or help him or her make new professional
contacts in the same area of research.
Since it enables
face-to-face meetings, eShadow is a complement to online social networks
such as Facebook, which excel at connecting people who are far apart,
“Today, online social networking has advanced
dramatically, but our ability to meet people face-to-face hasn’t gotten
any easier,” he said. “We want eShadow to close social gaps and connect
people in meaningful ways, while keeping the technology non-intrusive
and protecting privacy.”
The name eShadow comes from the idea
that users input their interests into the software, and their smartphone
broadcasts those interests to certain other users of the software – but
only within 50 yards of the phone. So as users move, the broadcast
follows them around like a shadow.
As to users’ safety, Xuan feels that, at least for some situations, meeting someone in person is safer than meeting them online.
people can steal others’ identity, or lie easily without detection.
It’s much harder to pull off a masquerade in person,” he said.
users only share information which they want to share, and can observe
potential friends at a distance before deciding whether to introduce
themselves. Young people, Xuan pointed out, are especially comfortable
with putting personal information online, and could readily adapt to
using the software.
That said, people can be selective about who
they wish to receive their eShadow signals. Users can select individuals
from their phone’s contact list, and specifically de-select people as
“Say I’m from Ohio State, and someone else is from the
University of Michigan, so I don’t want to talk to them. I just tell the
software to ignore anyone who says they’re from Michigan,” Xuan
The researchers’ biggest challenges concerned efficient
use of wireless communication, explained doctoral student Jin Teng. He
and his colleagues wrote algorithms that let smartphones send and
receive eShadow signals quickly, but without overwhelming a network.
outdoor tests on the Ohio State campus, they measured how fast the
software could detect users who were 20, 30, and 50 yards apart. They
tested different numbers of users, from two to seven.
cases, the software was able to connect people within about half a
minute – an average of 25 seconds for two users, and 35 seconds for
Xuan noted that eShadow’s algorithms could be useful
beyond socializing. Soldiers could use something akin to eShadow to
locate each other on the battlefield.
Presently, the software
works best when people move infrequently. Xuan and his research group
are enhancing it to better accommodate motion. They are also extending
it from Windows Mobile to support multiple smartphone platforms such as
Android, and exploring opportunities for publicly releasing the software
in the near future.
Other engineers on Xuan’s team include
Xiaole Bai, an assistant professor of computer and information science
at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and Boying Zhang,
Xinfeng Li, and Adam C. Champion, all doctoral students at Ohio State.
research was funded by Xuan’s National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER
award, an NSF Computer and Network Systems grant, and an Army Research