Why you'll love 'virtual sticky notes'

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- "Virtual sticky notes" -- better known as "virtual graffiti' -- are messages associated with a physical space. It's a great idea, and one whose time has come. Here's why you're going to love "virtual sticky notes."

Researchers at a variety of labs, at both universities and private companies, are working on technology that enables people to create messages and associate them with a specific location. Those pursuing leadership in this technology include Microsoft, Siemens, Cornell University, the University of Edinburgh and now in the news this week: Duke University (Click on the screen shot at the bottom of this post to access Duke's live application.)

"Virtual sticky notes" are messages and other content that people can't read unless they're standing in the right spot. The idea is that a phone's GPS determines the location for both poster and readers. The concept turns the physical world into a kind of 3-D Internet.

Here are some of the most likely applications for "virtual sticky notes":

  • Restaurant reviews and coupons. Step outside a restaurant, fire up the virtual sticky note application, and bang out a quick review: "High prices, but very good. Make sure you try the walnut cake." Then, in the future, when someone is outside that same restaurant, they can launch the same app on their own phone and read that, plus all other, reviews. An alternative is that when looking for a restaurant, you could tell your phone to ring when there's a message "in the air." Restaurants and other businesses could also use the technology for coupons and other promotions.
  • Virtual command posts. Police or other emergency workers could hang "virtual sticky notes" at the scene of a fire, crime or accident providing clear instructions and need-to-know information to all involved in dealing with the crisis.
  • Private message boards. Festivals, outdoor family reunions, concerts and other events could have ad hoc social networks or message boards accessible only to those present.
  • Simple notes for any occasion. Visit someone's house only to find that nobody's home. "Virtual sticky notes" enable you to write a note that will ring their phone once they walk up to the door.

The applications are endless.

The reason you'll love "virtual sticky notes" is that they promote extreme relevance for some kinds of communications and media. Everybody likes relevance. Let's face it: There's a whole lot of information cluttering up the Internet that's relevant only to people who happen to be located on a specific point on the globe. By taking these messages and associating them with that location, we're providing people in that location with highly filtered content that's by definition relevant. Meanwhile, people who aren't in that location don't have to be exposed to information they have no use for.

Three trends conspire to make the world safe for this awesome concept. First, the recent and widespread inclusion of GPS electronics in cell phones provide location awareness to the masses. Second, the rise in social networking (and the desire by companies to provide unique and compelling social networking services) makes it more likely that users will want to communicate in this way. And third, Google's Android -- which is optimized for mobile social network, and designed as a platform for third-party application makers -- is an ideal system for the creation of "virtual sticky note" applications.

Obviously, this technology is subject to network effect (the value of the technology increases with the number of users), so -- like the Web, e-mail and other major Internet applications -- it will be useless at first and may be indispensible eventually.

When I first heard about this concept a few years ago, it all seemed far-fetched. But suddenly, thanks to the three trends I mentioned, it seems inevitable. Bring it on! But let's do it right. Some major company (I'm talking to you, Google!) should help create and push standards so there's one set of protocols, not 50.

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