My iPhone told me what to have for lunch

Written by Alex Watson

May 27, 2010 | 10:42

Tags: #foursquare #game-design #gps #im-on-a-boat #iphone

We have a tradition here in the bit-tech offices, long held and deeply cherished, and it's called Burrito Friday. Its origins are shrouded in the mists of Harry's hunger, but we celebrate this joyous occasion every Friday by going for burritos at the excellent Benito's Hat.

Little gets in the way of Burrito Friday - until I started using a service called Foursquare.
I first became aware of it at SXSW; it's one of those web-apps that's equal parts quite cool and totally useless - of which Twitter was the forerunner and probably remains the best example. In fact, it's quite like Twitter, only it's focussed not on sending 140-character messages, but your location. Foursquare works best with a GPS-enabled smartphone; you load up the app when you go somewhere new and check-in. Your friends can then see where you are.

It's pretty simple and of course, perfect for the why-don't-you-just-use-a-carrier-pigeon-like-in-the-old-days brigade to complain about. In fact, the naysayers do have a point - Foursquare is extremely time-consuming and inefficient, because you have to remember to load the app, and it then needs to ping the GPS and get a list of locations, you have to select it, check in and wait for all that to work.

Clearly the future for this kind of service is a phone that broadcasts your location automatically, but is tightly controlled by granular, complex and flexible rules. For instance: IF time = after 7pm on a Friday but before midnight AND location IS NOT home and NOT same location as partner, then PING LOCATION to group "pub friends."

Anyway, for the time being, using Foursquare is a pain - which is why the developers have made it fun and competitive by turning it into a massive game.It's actually quite addictive - so much so that Foursquare changed what I had for lunch.

Like Xbox 360 games, Foursquare has achievements, which it calls badges - check in to a venue three times a week and you get one, check in after 3am on a weekday ('school night') or on a boat and get 'I'm on a boat'.

You can also become the Mayor of a venue, by checking in there more than anyone else; this shows up on your profile, and on the location's page.

Yes, it sounds a bit silly. But bear with me. It's only going to get sillier.

Near work there's an Italian sandwich shop. I go there quite a bit for lunch, and since starting to use Forusquare, I'd noticed that no matter how many times I went, I wasn't getting to be the mayor. This was a minor irritation, but I could cope with it. On this specific Friday, however, as we all headed out for burritos, I realised I'd been to the Italian sandwich shop twice already that week. A third time would get me the local badge. Plus, I was convinced it would be the visit that saw me crowned mayor.

My iPhone told me what to have for lunch
Foursquare's check-in screen on the iPhone

I paused for just a second before leaving the team at the Burrito shop and headed over the road for sandwiches, and checked in, securing myself the badge and the mayorship. Bingo.

The more I use Foursquare, the more I'm convinced that actually, the game part of it is the only really good bit. All the stuff about connecting with your friends doesn't work that well because it's too slow and clunky. The only time it works is when you've got a lot of people you know using it in the same area - and by area, I mean the same few streets. It's not much good to me to know that my friend Lawrence is having a cup of coffee in Highgate when I go to get lunch in the West End. It may only be a few tube stops away, but by the time I get there, he'd be gone. Unless I called him to arrange meeting up, at which point Foursquare itself is arguably redundant.

What's interesting to takeaway from Foursquare is that while location based systems have a long way to go, the integration of game mechanics into more areas of our lives is going to become increasingly common. It's a topic I'm going to come back to as I think it's likely going to be one of the most significant aspects of web and software design over the next few years.
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