UCCS prof leaps from virtual world to reality with social i2i device

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Dr. Michael Larson, UCCS professor, shows off his i2i button, where personal and professional information is stored and will react with someone else wearing an i2i button. The idea is to help people interact in the real world and find their common interests.

Imagine walking into a room and a light on your broach starts flashing green.

You’ve just come into contact with someone who shares your love for fine wine. You strike up a conversation and eventually make plans to meet at a wine-tasting event.

Michael Larson, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs professor, hopes a small device, worn like a broach or button, will put the social back into social networking.

The button, called i2i, is an electronic device that stores a person’s professional and personal interests. When a person meets another, who also is wearing the i2i button, the buttons communicate wirelessly and a colored light flashes to let them know they have common interests. Different colors would represent different interests.

“Think of this as an icebreaker,” he said. “The button could link up moms who have an interest in macramé or particle physics.”

Larson, an inventor and entrepreneur, believes this could be the next phase of social networking, moving from the virtual world to the real world. A person’s personal and professional preferences can be uploaded to the i2i button by linking to Facebook or an i2i interface. Then people in the real world could connect over hobbies, athletics, even business.

“I like putting the face-to-face, in-person cover on the benefits social networking can bring,” he said.

He’ll test his theory and his device on Kickstarter.com, a crowdfunding site that allows the masses to decide the next big thing by voting with their money. People can contribute as little as $10 to help fund a business venture. Or, they can put up the full amount and get the device once it’s made, operating like a preorder. Larson will attempt to raise $200,000 through the site to fund production of the buttons.

“I think we are on the verge of seeing a wave of devices that hook up with social media,” Larson said. “I’m hoping to be on the leading edge of that wave.”

Social isolation

Larson has become increasingly alarmed that relationships are taking place only in a virtual world. Consider this example: A New York Times columnist recently wrote that he had thousands of Facebook friends. He invited them all to join him for a drink at a set time and location. Not one showed.

“He suddenly realized the meaning of friend in the virtual world is different from the meaning in the real world,” Larson said.

Globally, 400 million people are using social networking sites, tapping away on their computers and smartphones, posting comments and photos of their lives for their virtual friends.

“Studies show that people who have a lot of Facebook friends feel more socially isolated,” Larson said.

Doctors appear to be divided — as two medical studies recently released have opposite findings — on whether too much time on Facebook or other social networking sites causes depression.

In her book “Alone Together,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes that it’s as though face-to-face communication is becoming extinct. And while she does not argue against the use of technology, she challenges people to think about how it has changed the way they interact.

“On social networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else — often the fantasy of who we want to be. Distinctions blur,” she wrote.

It’s up to the next generation to figure out to move from isolation that technology can sometimes cause to real-life connectivity, she writes.

Scott Krzych, Colorado College professor of new media, says it’s already happening. Social media does have a rat-race quality to it, he said. But it’s already considered boring by pre-teens and teenagers, he said. And once that happens, products must evolve.

The popularity of alternate reality games, which use a real-world platform to play, proves that virtual friendships are leaping into the real world, he said. He’s not surprised that more entrepreneurs, like Larson, are seizing on the social media evolution.

“I see it as the necessary specializing of any technology,” he said. “You see this in the move from public mass media — the networks to cable television.”

Like the alternate reality games, new devices and networking sites aim to get people out from behind the computer and into real social events or at least get people talking to one another.

Local entrepreneur Darren Terpstra, founder of KiwiKonnect.com, is developing a social networking site where people can connect with others who like similar activities, and then they go out and do the activity.

Cute Circuit and Ballantine’s were featured on Good Morning America this month with a wearable, sharable, programmable T-shirt, which shares Facebook status and Tweets, favorite songs and photos. The shirt, like Larson’s i2i, is in development.

Masses decide

The i2i button has business applications too, Larson says. It could be used at a trade show so that consumers can go directly to sellers of products that are of interest. It could be used by retail shops to advertise sales to consumers based on their preferences.

“I’m hoping we have a whole community of users that springs up around this free and open architecture, so that it develops very rapidly into something that maybe I cannot foresee right now, but that will be make people’s lives better,” Larson said.

Larson, who coaches entrepreneurs and helps them get their ideas to market through the UCCS Mind Studio, said Kickstarter.com and other crowdfunding sites open the doors for inventors to gain capital without having to appeal to one or two investors in an investment house. It’s a great way to test an idea, too.

There are two types of crowdfunding. One, recently approved in the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, allows entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million over the Internet. In that model, investors get equity in the company. The other type, like Kickstarter.com, operates more like a preorder.

For i2i, anyone who wants the device will put up $99.99 and receive the button when the products have been made. However, if Larson does not raise the entire $200,000, the money will be returned to the buyers.

“It adds a measure of excitement to John and Jane Q. Public out there,” Larson said. “They feel like they can participate in technology development in a way that they couldn’t before — it gives them a chance to recognize an idea before it is a realty and then to feel they actually had a role in making it a reality.”