Published in: San Francisco Chronicle
Date: March 28th, 2004
The game of tag: high-tech name labels have potential to bridge vast gaps in wide variety of awkward situations
by Stephanie Gold

Las Vegas -- I'm at a conference registration desk awaiting my name tag. Young women beam files from a computer to a gadget that looks like a tiny Etch-A- Sketch but is in fact an nTAG, a battery-operated interactive name tag the size and shape of an Altoids tin.

Instead of curiously strong mints, however, it now contains all the data from my registration questionnaire, plus the agenda schedule. When I trade pleasantries with other attendees, our nTAGs will swap info, too.

I had heard about this the old- fashioned way, from a friend, and I had an old-fashioned reaction -- I was appalled. In the pursuit of more efficient schmoozing, someone's devised a programmable name tag that communicates with other name tags. This is progress?

But then I'm a laggard, technologically speaking. Cell phones, laptops --

can't live without 'em, now, but I was a tad slow to embrace the change. Hey, I saw what happened to the suckers who bought eight-track tapes. Me, I wait till Consumer Reports says it's official.

This particular bit of new technology, the nTAG, is a 6-ounce conference badge you wear on a cord around your neck. A paper label states your name, but there's also a backlit LCD screen and infrared communication technology. Data, like answers from your questionnaire, can be uploaded, downloaded and beamed to other nTAGs, and text appears on the screen -- private messages and agenda details to read at your leisure, and icebreakers for others to read when you converse.

"The tags talk to each other through infrared -- the same thing your TV remote control uses," says George Eberstadt, an nTAG co-founder. The tags also compare data to see what you have in common. Each screen then displays a message -- a shared interest, or, failing that, some quirky fact. Intrigued, I contact the nTAG team, Rick Borovoy (managing partner, technology), and Eberstadt (managing partner, business), and ask if I can take a tag for a test drive.

Thus I find myself with Borovoy and Eberstadt, in the preconference calm before the registration storm, at the foot of a giant Styrofoam tree in the heart of a convention rotunda at an insurance-agent conference. I fill out a questionnaire at a computer kiosk. Along with contact details and business goals, I'm asked about actors, detectives and a favorite phrase from the 1970s, all destined to be downloaded to my nTAG.

The screen gives examples, "Make love not war," and "Here come da judge." Sadly, I fit the age demographic perfectly.

I enter "Never trust anyone over 30" and line up to get n-tagged with the other middle-aged techno-laggards.

The nTAG came from Borovoy's research in the Media Lab at MIT, where he was exploring relationships between technology, communication and learning -- interests he'd pursued during his Harvard days in computer science and his five years with Apple Computers.

"I was interested in what makes for good conversation versus idle discourse,'' Borovoy says. At Apple, he explains, the big application was using infrared for Newtons to beam business cards. "I thought, that's good. I guess business cards can be a pain," Borovoy remembers. "It just seemed like not a great use of a cool capacity." It would be more fun, he thought, to point Newtons at each other, compare address books, see who you knew in common.

"First meetings are intrinsically awkward because conversation rests on mutual knowledge, but you need conversation to produce it," he adds. I hold my nTAG up to my face, and the screen displays a menu, including Agenda, People I've Met, Event Feedback and nTAG Help. There's an up arrow, a down arrow and one to select whatever's highlighted. I select People I've Met and see a menu of names my tag remembers -- so far, Rick and George. I can read their profiles, even take notes on them. Individuals stroll from the rotunda wearing nTAGs, but most seem oblivious of their interactive name tags and are more intent on the business of recuperating from travel.

Undeterred, and armed with cutting-edge socializing technology, I head to the registration reception. Getting acquainted isn't the breeze I'd anticipated.

No one approaches me. To mingle I still have to step up to people whose body language says, "Just let me eat my hot pretzel in peace."

But approach I do. People haven't discovered the toggles that control the cord length, so nTAGs dangle at belly button height. We laugh and adjust each other's cords. Thus does new technology break the ice.

Dr. Lynne Henderson, director of the Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, isn't surprised that fumbling with technology helps alleviate the awkwardness of meeting strangers. "In our clinic, we encourage people to bumble freely. The best-liked people are often competent but not too perfect."

I'm not doing scientific control studies, but I have come to gather impressions -- mine and those of the conference attendees. Dan Michael likes the People I've Met feature. "I have a terrible memory;" he says. "Now I can imprint people's names, take notes, and know who I talked to."

But Lien Nguyen wants something lighter and more feminine. "I feel like I'm in prison," she says.

Borovoy is ahead of her, with a lighter nTAG planned for 2006. "We want them sexier, thinner, lighter. We did this first one in just 3 1/2 months.

"People want to try something different, but they don't want to try anything too different,'' he adds. "It's just like in 'Star Trek.' They want to seek out new civilizations, but nothing too new, or out come their phasers. "

I wonder if communication's harder in a multicultural society.

"Definitely," Borovoy says. "Diversity forces people to get ever more insular, which feels easy, but that's cheating, right? At MIT, the people who funded the lab would come for show-and-tell and talk among themselves. IBM people talked to IBM, students talked to students. It's the same with events. Companies spend money flying people to conferences and building artificial trees, and the marketers just talk to marketers."

"What about nTAG dating," I ask?

"That request comes up 10 times a day, no joke," Borovoy says. "It would be great, but to use this for dating might mean a whole different model."

Different models have already been developed. Michael Borer's LoveGety was the cutting-edge Japanese romance toy of 1998, letting male gadgets (blue) detect female gadgets (pink) within 15 feet. The sardine-size object would beep or vibrate (your call) when it found a mode match (Chat, Karaoke or Get2, depending on the love activity you wanted to get-y.) This tender bit of technology was followed shortly thereafter by Gaydar, Borer's same-sex version.

Bluejacking's another social networking craze. Using Bluetooth-enabled cell phones and PDAs set in paired and discoverable modes, you send some stranger within range a business card and note -- it's no LoveGety, but it passes for techno-flirting in Britain.

"No dating surveys and polls?" I ask Borovoy.

"We're actually thinking about that," he says. "For the singles market, wouldn't it be fun to put your own poll out? After the six-minute date, I could find out what you really thought about me. How you like my new shoes. Whether I'm funny. People could answer anonymously and get scores.''

Now it's Monday night. The ballroom's packed; everyone's got an nTAG around the neck and a drink in hand. When it comes to rocking out to the '70s, this crowd relies on eye contact and liquor. The nTAGs are just 6-ounce admission tickets. My nightmare comes true -- I'm alone at a dance, trying to meet people to the sounds of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." I feel betrayed by technology. It's powerless here and I'm back in seventh grade. But I look better than I did then (I have the pictures to prove it), and I have an nTAG around my neck. Unruffled, Danny Whisenant's having a blast, using his device to the nth degree. As I head for the exit, he aims his nTAG at me, extended as far as his elastic will allow. Our tags talk, and soon we're conversing.

"It's pretty cool," Whisenant says in a Texas drawl. "I don't know exactly what-all they do at this point, but if I can get e-mailed the names of all the people I met, that'd be phenomenal! I'm not too good with the business cards.''

The application running on the nTAGs now is the '70s quote. Some have adopted quotes from other tags, and they spread like happy viruses. One quote is "Come up and see me sometime"; Whisenant's tag picked it up. "I wonder who put that there? If I go around asking, I'll either get lucky or I'll get a black eye."

Home from the conference, I call Phil Quinn of Quinn Interactive, San Francisco. A Web designer, he's no tech laggard -- I'm curious what he makes of it all.

"The last conference I went to was MacWorld," he says, "where they labeled everyone by where they are in the food chain of consumer electronics." Though he likes the idea of PDA badges and easier networking, he's concerned nTAGs just "help the predators find their prey." After four days at my conference, 11,556 electronic business cards were sent to 2,082 users. Clearly, the closest I came to a wallflower was the Styrofoam tree.

If this group of late adopters could make connections and have nTAG fun, watch out when tech enthusiasts get their hands on social networking technology. The seventh-grade dance might be in for a serious redesign.