Ironically we couldn't find each other. I'd arranged to meet Glancee founder and CEO Andrea Vaccari at 2pm in the Hilton Austin lobby, during the height of SXSW Interactive. But with hundreds of geeks running around, I couldn't see him anywhere. The wifi, as always the case at SXSW, was spotty and I didn't have his cellphone number. So for about 10 minutes we each wandered around the lobby, inside and out, looking for the other. Until a message popped up on my iPhone. Ah, WiFi at last! The message was from Vaccari and came via Glancee, one of a number of so-called "ambient location" apps competing for attention at SXSW.

Although we eventually connected, the unreliable WiFi was one reason why neither Glancee nor any of its competitors took off at SXSW. The other main reason - which turned out to be a particular problem for the most popular one, Highlight - was that the apps drained your smartphone battery. I sat down with Vaccari to find out his reaction to the ambient location hype, his frustration at Highlight's Silicon Valley connections, and the disappointment many SXSW users felt with these apps.

Andrea Vaccari is a tall, cherub-faced 28 year old with dark hair. He's talkative and his eagerness to tell you about the product he created makes him a natural Silicon Valley entrepreneur. But like many in the Valley, he's an import. In 2006 Vaccari moved from his native Italy to live in the USA. Despite his friendly nature and Italian charm, Vaccari found it difficult to meet people when he first moved here. He also traveled a lot and wanted to find new ways to make friends and connections. This was his inspiration for creating a mobile app that enables you to meet like-minded people around you.

What Glancee Does; And Why Isn't Foursquare Doing It?

Glancee - like competitors Highlight, Kismet, Sonar and Ban.jo - is a mobile app that lets you discover who is around you at whatever location you're in. It does this mostly using GPS, which is also the reason for the battery drain. Through its API connection to Facebook and Twitter, Glancee can identify people around you who share interests with you. For example, you may be at your local cafe and discover that a fellow cafe dweller you haven't met before also loves literature. You can then send a message to that person via Glancee (maybe also wave at them across the room, although that would cross the freaky line). A new feature of Glancee, introduced just before SXSW, is a time-based diary of who was at the location before you. So you could try and connect with someone next time at that location.

These apps are slightly different from Foursquare, the market leader in location "check ins." Foursquare doesn't show you what, if anything, you have in common with others who check in to the same location. Glancee, Highlight and others aim to uncover those social connections. Vaccari did admit, however, that he's surprised Foursquare hasn't done this yet.

2009-2010: How Glancee Was Born

I first met Vaccari in Boston in mid-2009, when he was a research assistant at the MIT SENSEeable City Lab. At the time, mobile real-time technologies were coming into fashion. Vaccari was working on MIT projects such as WikiCity, which monitored cell phone traces in Rome and created visualizations from them.


Andrea Vaccari at SXSW 2012; photo by gui ambros

Even though he worked at an educational institution, Vaccari had an entrepreneurial pep about him. So I was curious, at the time, how he would go about commercializing the real-time cellphone data ideas he was researching. It turns out that Glancee was his answer.

Vaccari told me the spark of the Glancee concept came to him early 2010. Later that year, he went to work with Google in New York as a Software Engineer Intern. He tested out the initial concepts to Googlers, as a web page (not a smartphone app). He then started Glancee in November, with the idea of creating an iPhone app.

2011-2012: Ambient Proximity Social Location Apps (Or Something Like That...)

Glancee launched in June 2011, at O'Reilly Media's Foo Camp. It had 15,000 users at the time of SXSW.

Over 2011 and leading up to SXSW, Vaccari said that two key technologies evolved for Glancee: location and finding a good way to match people. With the location part, Vacarri claims that Glancee is more sophisticated than Highlight in terms of conserving battery power. He explained that with Glancee, the GPS is not always on and therefore it isn't a constant battery drain. GPS turns off and on in Glancee, depending on how active you are. For example if you've been in the same cafe for an hour, it won't constantly check your GPS. But if you're out and about, it will check the GPS more often. Vaccari said that it took two months to get their location technology right. Highlight, by comparison, is "battery heavy" according to Vaccari.

Highlighting Silicon Valley Connections

Glancee's main competitor, Highlight, only launched in January this year. Yet Highlight has gotten most of the attention from tech media and was more popular with SXSW users. The skewed media coverage has been a source of frustration for Vaccari all year, who came back to the subject a few times during our interview.

It's a fact of life that some products get more attention from industry influentials than others - particularly if they're backed by powerful investors (a.k.a. the Silicon Valley mafia), as Highlight is. But Vaccari has a point: Glancee launched 7 months before Highlight and is clearly technologically superior.

Vaccari got particularly incensed (or at least as incensed as an affable guy can be) by a favorable write-up that TechCrunch gave Highlight in early February. The article failed to mention Glancee at all. Vaccari left a comment calling the post an "advertorial" and bemoaning that "because we don't have connections in the valley it's impossible for us to get the word out about it." Although eventually TechCrunch and others did write more about Glancee, it's undeniably been an uphill battle for Glancee competing against the more socially connected Highlight.

Where To Next For Glancee & Ambient Location Apps?

While SXSW was a damp squib for Glancee, Highlight and the other apps, Vacarri unsurprisingly remains bullish. He thinks "social discovery" (his term for these types of apps) is a market ripe with potential.

One thing is for sure, no one has really cracked it. Foursquare isn't even in the social discovery game (yet), early proximity app Color never took off, and Glancee and Highlight still have technical and market challenges to overcome.

I myself am not a convert at this time, but I do see potential in this space. Do I want to meet more like-minded people as I travel and even in my own local cafes and places like the library? Sure I do! But I'll either need to become a lot more extroverted, or hope a lot of other people start using ambient location apps too.