Ambient apps are the 'Highlight' of SXSW Interactive

March 13, 2012 at 12:49 PM ET

Highlight /

Every South by Southwest Interactive confab is afflicted by an obnoxious industry catch phrase. This year it’s “solmolo,” which is Annoyese for “social, mobile, local” or, if you prefer, “ambient reality.”

In 2009 Foursquare charmed SXSW Interactive attendees by game-ifying the act of tracking down your friends, acquaintances and random targets. This year’s big app is Highlight. You can’t swing a fried hard drive in Austin this year without smacking some hipster babbling about or using the mobile superstar. You run the app on your iPhone; it tracks fellow Highlighters simply by being on.

Yep, it’s for iPhone only. That’s a growing pain for the SXSW Interactive darling. What’s less, Highlight only works properly if it runs in the background all the time. Which sucks your battery dry. Highlight helped empty my admittedly ancient iPhone 3GS in about four hours as I tried it. This was while avoiding texting, snapping pictures, making calls, etc.

Like an increasing number of apps, you connect to Highlight via your Facebook account. So the privacy concerns, if you’re still pretending you have them, are obvious. When you have Highlight on, other Highlight users in your area will be able to see your profile, mutual friends, interests, photos, whatever you have on Facebook. For better or worse, there’s probably no way around this. Highlight recommends who you should say “hi” to those around  you based on what you supposedly have in common. If you encounter that person again, Highlight reminds you.

Currently, Highlight doesn’t work with Foursquare, an obvious potential partner in the genre of location apps. That might change. Foursquare refused to work with Facebook in the beginning as well.

Glancee /

It’ll be interesting to see if Highlight catches on over the next year. Meanwhile, just as Foursquare beat Gowalla all those years ago, there are other contenders like Highlight. Here’s a look at some competitors:

Sonar /

Glancee: While Highlight sucks up the media attention this year, Glancee is busy in the background, running on both iPhone and Android, and sucking up way less battery life to boot. While both apps provide essentially the same service, Glancee displays fellow Glancee users by proximity — sort of like how a shark chooses its next meal.

Sonar: Don’t worry, Android users! You aren’t being left out of the ambient revolution. Sonar is here to help violate your privacy — er, help you identify your fellow Android users when you’re out and about.

Just in time for SXSW, Sonar (previously only available on iPhone) upgraded from listing who’s in a venue (and making recommendations about whom you should meet) to integrating Facebook events, the Eventbrite invite service and even LinkedIn. Now you can see who’s around via a list that starts with your friends, or switch to location mode in order to see who’s in a specific bar or party, etc.

Uberlife: Uberlife made its U.S. debut this year at SXSW. It distinguishes itself by allowing users to create hangout locations in real life. You invite your friends in Facebook and Twitter to join you there. Those invited can then invite their own Facebook and Twitter fans.

That’s kind of creepy, seeing as many of us have the probably unwise habit of friending and following people we don’t know so well. But hey! Uberlife also offers an “umbrella” feature where attendees can add comments and photos of the IRL event, in case you need, um, evidence.

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Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Tell her to get a real job on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.