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SXSW: Location, location, location!

March 12, 2010 |  4:20 pm

Compass In entertainment, as in real estate, it's all about your location.

As thousands of bands and their fans flock to South By Southwest this week and next, Austin, Texas, will be ground zero for a burgeoning technology called location-based services. 

For the uninitiated, here's how it works: Users broadcast where they are, either by turning on the feature in their cellphones or by explicitly "checking in" to a specific location, say Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Doing so lets them see who else using the service is nearby, for example, or what types of events are taking place around them.

One company, a start-up called Loopt based in Mountain View, Calif., currently lists more than 700 parties, talks, films and concerts a day in Austin during the SXSW festival. By telling Loopt where you are, the service serves up a list of events happening that day within 1,000 feet of you.

In other words, Loopt aims to answer the perennially vexing social question: What's near me that I can do now?

Wondering what you should do at SXSW? Try Plancast. If you're in the mood for a treasure hunt, Booyah has ginned up one, sponsored by ZonePerfect Nutrition Bars. Want to find a date to go with you to a concert at SXSW? Try Grindr (if you are gay) or Loopt Mix. If you're hungry afterward the show, Foursquare has teamed up with Zagat to serve up restaurant reviews near you.

Loopt, funded by Sequoia Capital and NEA, was among the first to dive into location-based social networking when it started in 2006. Since then, a rafter of other companies have jumped in, including Foursquare, Booyah! and Gowalla.

Yelp, a site where users review restaurants, among other things, also uses the feature. Twitter just flipped the switch on geo-location so users can share their whereabouts with their followers. Facebook recently announced it will add the feature in April so its members can update their status messages with not just  what they are doing, but also where they are doing it.

You can imagine all sorts of businesses salivating over the ability to know the exact location of their potential customers. If a service notices that you tend to sneak out at 4:30 p.m. on Fridays to a bar for some early Miller Time, it could send you a coupon at 4:00 p.m. from a nearby bar for a happy hour discount. Those are called hyper-local ads.

But wait. There's more. Media and entertainment companies have been experimenting with the technology to create buzz for upcoming events. At Comic-Con last year, movie studios and TV networks sent fans on scavenger hunts throughout San Diego to seek out clues that promoted their upcoming projects, including "Alice in Wonderland" and "Fringe."

These services have been percolating for some time, but until recently they've remained on the bleeding fringe used primarily by uber tech geeks. So why are they bubbling up now?

South By Southwest could very well be the place where location-based services start hitting the mainstream.

"This is the first year for this conference where almost everyone has a phone capable of location-based apps to help them find cool things," said Sam Altman, chief executive and co-founder of Loopt, which has 3 million registered users. "Secondly, there has been shift in public perception. When we started our company, everyone thought we were crazy. No one would want to share their location. That would be creepy. Now, they’re not afraid of that anymore."

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

Photo: Compass by psd via Flickr.