Small talk gets virtual facelift

A company in New York City believes it has the personal high-tech solution to overcoming the awkwardness associated with human interaction. It has developed a radio frequency identification name badge, designed for use at trade shows and conferences.

nTAG Interactive Inc.’s nTAG — a four-inch

by three-inch by one-inch LCD screen weighing about six ounces — is a small computer that hangs around an individual’s neck or is worn like a regular paper badge. The nTAG has an RFID tag inside that transmits information via infrared sensors from tag to tag (direct line-of-sight, up to 15 feet), enabling users to send and receive personal information that is displayed on the unit’s screen. Moreover, nTAGs can be pre-loaded with specific information individuals want to share.

At a conference, as attendees approach each other, information is automatically transferred from tag-to-tag. The nTAG’s LCD screens illuminate and display information on shared interests. For example, it might read, “”Hi Karen. I’m David, we both work in the fashion apparel industry.””

Paul Confrey, vice-president of sponsorship management for Mastercard Inc. in Purchase, N.Y., says the nTAG is destined to go “”beyond exhibit and conference halls.”” Confrey says the interactive badges will help aid phatic communion — the initial linguistic attempt by one person to relate to another.

“”It’s a simple step towards getting people who are strangers to talk to one another,”” he says. “”You could be walking down the hall and have an irresistible urge to say hello to someone you’re passing, but you don’t do it for whatever reason . . . (nTAGs) break the ice.””

The nTAG was invented through research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MediaLab by Rick Borovoy and some of his colleagues. Borovoy and business partner George Eberstadt co-founded nTAG Interactive to market the device.

Confrey says Mastercard beta-tested the product for Borovoy a year ago at one of its annual conferences that brought together its marketing and operational staff for three hours to discuss the company’s IT initiatives.

The problem for Mastercard was two-fold, he says: The marketing staff isn’t as tech-savvy as its operational card processing staff, and the two verticals don’t tend to mingle at company conferences.

“”It’s a question of how to get these different, competitive institutions to begin to interact,”” he says. “”It’s an

issue Mastercard struggles with and no one wants to go through those touchy-feely group-bonding exercises.””

The nTAGs have onboard processors rendering their use autonomous, with no back-room server driving them.

“”Key to the concept is that each badge has its own reality learned from its environment,”” explains Confrey. “”Laptops were used to upload and download the initial configuration, but the badges are citizens of their own republic.””

Mastercard outfitted about 250 of its staff with the nTAGs at its conference, while another 50 went without. The end result was “”amazing,”” he says.

“”There were techies still wearing the badges after hours, looking around to see who else was wearing them, and the staff we didn’t give them out to were quite upset about it,”” he says.

In the future, Eberstadt says he sees the nTAG being used beyond exhibit halls. The device could prove useful in a corporate environment as a means of personalizing workstations or for security purposes. But for now, his company is focussed on hyper-large trade shows.

“”We have many ideas as to how the technology can be used,”” he says. “”But this device is built specifically for the events industry.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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