My iPhone told me what to have for lunch

Posted on 27th May 2010 at 10:42 by Alex Watson with 16 comments

Alex Watson
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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Xir 27th May 2010, 12:19 Quote
I'm definetely too paranoid to broadcast my location onto the internet.

But the possibilities...
...break into your house while I know you're not there. your girl while you' mine? (if I use it too) :D
...collect your daily routine so I know when to rob you allone in a dark alley*

*leaves office every night at xxx am and turns up at xxx 5 mins later...probable walkway, backstab-alley!

Mischief gallore!
Xir 27th May 2010, 12:31 Quote
I just reread my post.
I dont Hate Alex Watson (hmmm, his picture shows a different name). With "You" in the post above, I meant evryone in general using a location broadcasting device.
PegasusM 27th May 2010, 13:39 Quote
Haha interesting blog entry.
I have it on android, I think its more useful at university as lots of people go to the same few places that are nearby.
Abhorsen 27th May 2010, 15:25 Quote
4 of us at work use it, we did get into it but then to be honest the novelty wears off!

Its got potential but at the moment, thats it.
Cupboard 27th May 2010, 17:36 Quote
By the time you get to the stage where you will go to a specific place for lunch so you can win at some app, rather than go somewhere with people who I assume you would class as friends, you lose. Sorry.

By all means use the thing to help you decide where to go, find a menu, find your mates. But going there to claim some arbitrary prize is silly.
Nature 27th May 2010, 20:52 Quote
sumatran rat monkey
bahgger 27th May 2010, 22:32 Quote
I've used it enough times to get the "30 checkins in a month" badge but with so few people using it there isn't much point to continue at the moment. They need to increase their user population and get that critical mass for this to be relatively interesting. I'm the mayor of 4 places and it's not like I'm even trying.
Sifter3000 28th May 2010, 07:38 Quote
Originally Posted by Cupboard
By all means use the thing to help you decide where to go, find a menu, find your mates. But going there to claim some arbitrary prize is silly.

You know, I don't even disagree - I was trying to poke fun at myself a bit with this post. What's interesting to me is that when you unleash game mechanics in non-game situations, they can be very powerful, even though the rational part of your brain "knows" it's silly.
quicklizard 28th May 2010, 08:36 Quote
I have also gone out of my way to get foursquare badges. Silly rewards can just as fun in the real world. A few years ago half the office were setting their alarms for crazy times like 3am just to log into Eve online and maximise their character's skill training time. I love the way that game mechanics can change 'real world' behaviour.
barrkel 29th May 2010, 09:15 Quote
I prefer Chilango. Still not as nice as a proper SF mission burrito though.
Sifter3000 29th May 2010, 11:43 Quote
Originally Posted by barrkel
I prefer Chilango. Still not as nice as a proper SF mission burrito though.

Well, yeah, if we're talking to Mexican food, the best I had was in Austin, TX. Torchy's Tacos FTW.
2bdetermine 29th May 2010, 16:46 Quote
Is this what humanity heading to that we're so incompetent/stupid that we need devices to tell us what to do?
M7ck 30th May 2010, 14:45 Quote
I gave this app a try and to be honest it is crap, I was at supermarket today and tried to check in but it says I was 845 metres from supermarket so no points :(
capnPedro 30th May 2010, 16:03 Quote
Originally Posted by 2bdetermine
Is this what humanity heading to that we're so incompetent/stupid that we need devices to tell us what to do?

To be honest, sometimes it's fun to let something else make a decision. All through college I carried a set of DnD dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20, d%) and a coin (d2) due to us being cheap students and not owning iPhones. Great way to settle arguments in a group when you can't agree where to go.
fodder 3rd June 2010, 07:27 Quote
I think you can do the practical bit far more efficiently with Android. Try combining Latitude with Locale, that should do it. All automatic.
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