What do you get when you combine all-services Instant Messaging, web-centric AJAX-style (no download), geolocation services, and reasonably sensible ‘filtering’ to show only people matching certain criteria? Radius IM, which has been reviewed in Techcrunch and numerous other places (e.g. I got a link just now via Robin Good at Kolabora), since its launch back in the summer of 2006.
I say ‘improving’ in the title of this posting because I want to strike a positive tone. I’ve been in the ‘geolocation+IM’ game for a few years, since BuddySpace was born in 2001, (at least I got in early enough to bag the seemingly obvious BuddySpace.* domains!), and although I’ve got a life outside the geoloc/IM arena, I like to survey the scene from time to time and see what’s happening. Techcrunch, Stowe Boyd, and others keep on top of this whole scene much more actively than me these days, but I’ve got strong personal views, so here goes. I’ll talk about good news, bad news, and some constructive suggestions.
First, the good news: Radius IM is slick, attractive, lightweight, no-nonsense, does what it says on the box, lets you log in easily to multiple services (Yahoo, AOL, MSN, Gtalk, plus its own), runs in a browser, looks great and works exactly as promised (“It’s a free site that shows you who’s around and lets you IM them.”). Setting your own location is a piece of cake: you use Google Maps not only to surf around for your friends, but also as a click-to-set-location interface. A bonus is they have thought through some cool scaleability and user interface tricks: if you click on the picture in the upper right of this posting, you’ll see a screen grab showing me logged in to both Radius IM and Yahoo, pretending to be centred in New York city, and viewing BOTH my own buddy lists (in text) and all Radius IM users, whether online or offline, whether on my buddy list or not, within X miles of me (that X is the radious simply varies depending on the zoom factor of the central Google Maps display). As you zoom in or out, and change the simple ‘filter’ (you can see that in a separate box on the left of my screen grab), the photos or avatars change accordingly, depending on who is in range. The scaleability trick is that rather than cram everyone onto the map, the photo thumbnails are just splattered along the map’s perimiter zone, and a scroll bar, as you can see on the right of that screen grab, appears as necessary so you can work your way through ‘the crowd’. As you might expect, it’s click-to-chat, and you’re in business. Fiddling with the ‘filter’ box dynamically alters who is displayed, so you can specify online/offline/both, male/female/both, age ranges, and see people ‘within the zone’, as well as your normal buddy list.
Now, the bad news: In a densely-populated zone, or with weak filters on, you are going to experience noticeable delays. And the web-centric paradigm is both a blessing and a curse: presented as good news above, it is also an albatross around your neck if you want to do something ‘outside that cool browser window’ that embraces all your presence interactions like a fake desktop. But hey, this so-called ‘bad news’ is not actually that bad! Life is full of tradeoffs, and when you need a web-centric environment, whether out of convenience or out of necessity, trust me, you need it badly! So a tool like Radius IM, assuming you trust them with all your login details for your various services (I’ve just done exactly that) rises very nicely to the occasion. There’s more bad news though. You can only ‘geolocate’ people by their Radius IM location, meaning that your various Yahoo, MSN and AOL buddies just live as before like they did on a plain vanilla list. Again, not that bad – you’re no worse off than you were before, you’ve got multi-service buddy lists, and you’ve got geolocation for a whole new set of people.
There’s an overarching question over how much do you really want to geo-surf people you’ve never met? Well, the ham radio DX-er in me says that’s actually an OK thing to do, at least briefly. People will obviously use this service for cruising/socialising/dating, but under the ‘bad news’ heading I have to add that Radius IM does not have anything like the filtering power and sophistication pioneered by Odigo many years ago: that is still the interface to beat for a ‘master control panel of fields, sliders and buttons’ through which you can select online people in real time according to a mixture of mood, intention, location, language, interest, age, etc.
Finally, the improvement suggestions: Here’s where I put my cards on the table. I’ve looked at many many tools in this space over the years, and designed a few myself. I wouldn’t be wasting my breath on this if I didn’t already think it had tremendous potential. Even my ‘bad news’ items were, frankly, not that bad, and since the ‘good news’ items comprise a tremendous arsenal of user-interface savvy, social software goodness, and multi-service capability, you’d think the Radius guys probably don’t need much advice! But here it is anyway, based on years of lessons we’ve learned from thousands of BuddySpace users (read a concise summary of some of our studies). Rather than just a list of “more cool features please” (in fact “less features” is generally my preferred approach), I’ll try to justify the items below in terms of the power they provide to the user:
- Saved maps: People overlay their own cognitive model on the world. Allowing people to call up saved maps puts them on familar turf, so to speak. Compare the experience of watching a televised sporting event through (i) a closeup camera where you have to endure the roller-coaster tunnel-vision panning and zooming of the cameraman (who applies his/her own cognitive model to the world, so he/she’s ok, but you’re dizzy) vs (ii) a longer-distance static view of the whole game, which misses closeups but lets your own eye and brain handle the workload. Using ‘given’ maps is more like (i), whereas your own maps are like (ii).
- Custom maps: This is similar to the previous item, but applies to other images like office layouts, floorplans etc. Why stick to ‘world map/cartography’? BuddySpace users loved having custom maps such as office layouts on which they could superimpose presence states.
- My perspective vs your perspective: If I want to chat to Stowe Boyd and I want to find him quickly/visually, I’ll glance over towards the Washington DC area where I know he’s based. Sometimes it matters where he really is (in fact his home page tells me that too), but sometimes it doesn’t. Let me be the judge of that, and, as in the points raised immediately above, let me drive the visual effects. I want both, and in a crowded/busy/hurried world, my ‘first cut’ is to find people at the location where my mental model tells me they normally are. Hey, if they’re somewhere else, a little ‘forwarding’ icon can tell me that too. Or at least let me toggle between ‘my perspective’ vs ‘your perspective’, just as many IM clients do with user nicknames.
- Odigo-style filters: Study the mother of all real-time presence filtering interfaces, and use what you have learned. No one has ever done it better than them, and unless they’ve patented their filtering style and concepts, you can learn an awful lot in one hour.
- Skype: You probably do not want to compete in the voice/video arena (though that would be fun too), but at the very least it would be worth experimenting with bidirectional API-connectivity to/from Skype
- OS-specific notification widgets: Web-Centric Is Good, and Radius IM is an awesome player in this space, but let’s face it, sometimes it’s a drag, especially where presence/connectivity matters, so the way around this is to start developing operating-system specific notification widgets, that live entirely outside the browser.
- One native client: As an experiment, you’ve got to develop at least one native client, just to see how suprisingly liberating it can be… or farm that out to another team.
I wish RadiusIM the best of success in this exciting niche: go get ’em!
Oh, I almost forgot to say: BuddySpace has morphed into an AJAX web-centric tool over the past year… look out for MSG in the Open University’s OpenLearn project, notably its LabSpace experimental zone! Yes, Google Maps will be in there too shortly… just as you expected! And yes, it’s already got the OS-specific notification widget! We haven’t written much about it yet, though Tony Hirst has blogged it.
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