Social Network Wins TechCrunch Startup Battlefield
Among 24 competitors were companies like BitCasa, who presented a well-polished program that stores an infinite amount of personal data securely in a cloud. Cake Health created an app to log personal health insurance data and track progress toward deductibles and forgotten benefits.
But it was a Facebook-based social game called Shaker that took home the Disrupt Cup. The game invites players to schmooze with one another in a virtual social scene within the social network.
Shaker hopes to allow users to meet people online meaningfully–-that is, in a shared social setting that prompts conversation surrounded by other avatars across the globe.
"People feel that their interaction has to do with the graphic environment, and this gives us amazing potential to be a platform for social experiences,” the Shaker inventors described during their presentation to Disrupt judges. “We can take experiences, communities and a graphic environment and bring them to life."
The graphic environment is what elevates Shaker from being a glorified Google+. Within the TechCrunch loft now is a wide-open L-shaped space with a bar at one end and low-slung virtual Ikea tables. There’s even a DJ at the top of the screen spinning Luke Rathborne’s “Tomorrow.”
Everyone in the loft is logged in with their Facebook profile, and they’ve chosen how much they can share: Basic information like name and networks; a mid-level option that includes likes, interests and tagged photos; or all the information they’ve posted.
Putting a cursor over another avatar reveals the person’s name, profile picture and any of his or her common interests (the guy on this bench beside me likes Lost, too!). The goal, then, is for users to approach others and start a conversation about that mutual interest.
“Facebook shut down the idea” of meeting people online, TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington said in his comments after Shaker’s presentation to the judges’ panel. Shaker aims to start it again by providing conversation fodder: favorite TV shows, common music, even a tweet wall at the back of the venue.
Conversations are private, and if they’re going well, users have the option of buying someone a virtual drink. According to Shaker’s presentation, avatars can even start dancing at certain hours – sometimes with others and sometimes on tables, not unlike a real social setting.
But Shaker is a real social setting, its designers insist: "It is inconceivable that in the future fun causal experiences will be reserved to the physical world only. Some will happen online," Shaker’s CEO said in his presentation.
Shaker is still only in its beta phase open to 540 users at any given time. It launched in Israel where designers have already seen thousands of Facebook friend requests fly between people in the same virtual room. They hope these typed conversations will foster real-life relationships.
Jim Lanzone, president of CBS Interactive, quickly distinguished Shaker's product from avatar-based chat rooms like SecondLife. Shaker provides legitimate activity, and it’s far more accessible to casual users.
"It's not a second life. It's a different version of your first life," the designers added.
It’s the environment that makes this product special, Shaker insists, and thus far, they seem to be at least partially right. The music, lighting and layout of the room makes this experience eerily real.
The problems prompted by social networking are present, of course: How do users maintain their privacy, and what’s the best balance between sharing enough to be interesting but too little to risk harm?
Or, more simply, how can users ensure that the guy who just sent a virtual drink isn’t a creep?
Read earlier coverage of the event here.
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