Want to know what's top of the mind for geeks around the country right now?
The hottest topic at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, an annual fest for all things social media that wrapped up Tuesday, was location-based services, or more to the point, apps that will let you do anything from finding a friend on a Friday night to navigating the globe using 3-D map technology.
Startups from all over the world pitched mobile applications that use GPS and other location data from cell phones to help consumers socialize, shop, game, date and engage in countless other activities.
With whimsical names like Loopt, Foursquare, Whrrl and Gowalla, they came out in full force, trying to win what some are calling the "location wars." Better known companies are in on it too. Twitter recently added a location feature and Facebook is expected to add one soon.
"Your mobile devices are getting smarter, so even a base phone you get for free when you sign up with your mobile carrier will have GPS capabilities. The phone has the ability to at least some degree tell you where the phone's at, which makes it easy to tell the apps on the phone where you're at and what you're doing," said Josh Babetski, an evangelist and product manager for MapQuest.
That extra layer of "slice of life" data, he said, could help unlock the potential of social networks, mobile technology and more.
Here are a few ways the future of location-based technology could affect you:
Some of the most popular location-aware applications revolve around broadcasting your location in real-time to friends and family.
When you walk into a place -- say a hot party or new restaurant -- you pull up your app of choice and "check in" to send an alert to others in your network, letting them know that you've arrived. Some services like Foursquare and Gowalla (two of the major players in the geo-social space) have turned the activity into a game, so you earn points or other kinds of rewards the more you check in.
You can also scroll through your list of friends on the network to see if they're close by and what they're saying.
Locating friends and family while you're out and about could not only be valuable in itself, but location-based networks could also clue you in to what's happening at places you've considered checking out.
Babetski said that seeing what others are saying about a place they're visiting could be very helpful.
"What's more interesting -- going to a pizza place and seeing 3.5 stars out of 18 reviews, or reading social comments of people who are there eating, or just recently ate there and said, 'Oh my God, I found a hair in my pizza?'" he asked.
While checking in is still a relatively new concept (FourSquare has reportedly about 500,000 users, Gowalla has about 100,000), Babetski said it could become ubiquitous by the end of the year.
Steve Lee, a Google product manager responsible for many of the company's mobile and location-based products, said the technology could also help families keep track of loved ones. As he travels around the world for work, he said his family can follow him on Google Latitude to virtually see what he's up to.
"[My mom] can check my location on Google Maps to see when I've arrived and that I've gotten there safely," he said. "It's also a great conversation starter."