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Touch and Go

How an adorable new networking device may replace the humble business card.

Author Adam K. Raymond

tech

Illustration by Edward McGowan

BACK IN SEPTEMBER 2009, a group of 25 students, neighbors and professionals from companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo! and Intel met up at the Los Gatos, California, home of Denny Mayer—“a classic Silicon Valley neighborhood gathering,” he said—to fiddle with a tiny new product called Poken, which allows users to exchange contact information and links to social network profiles simply by touching two together.

The company calls the keychain-size device a “social business card,” and it’s out to make the paper version obsolete. But before anyone at Mayer’s house party had a chance to consider Poken’s

life-altering effects, they were struck by its design. “It was just so cute!” says Catherine Ford, a program manager at digital mapping company Navteq, whose first Poken was a sunglasses-wearing character with a round head, tiny body and four-fingered hand.

After the novelty wore off, Ford started putting her Poken to use, touching its palm to the palms of other guests’ Pokens, thereby performing what the company calls a “high 4.” Each high 4 allows the devices to exchange an encrypted code by using a low-energy radio frequency enabled by Near Field Communication technology. That code holds the key to a person’s digital life, which is revealed when a Poken is plugged into a USB port on a computer and a user’s profile launches. There, a timeline of all the new friends they’ve Pokened appears, containing links to whatever social networks they’ve attached to their Pokens.

“As soon as I got home, I plugged my Poken into my laptop, and I had immediate access to everyone I just met,” Ford says. “That’s when I knew this technology could have a lot of applications for our company.”

Stéphane Doutriaux, a 34-year-old who earned his MBA in Lausanne, Switzerland, conceived of the product after coming to terms with his inability to master business cards. “I don’t know what to do with them,” he says.

As a newly christened MBA and a seven-year veteran of the corporate world, Doutriaux knew that business cards couldn’t be done away with completely, so he set out to revolutionize them. “The goal was to be able to easily pick up digital information about the people I met and have a complete view of their online profiles,” Doutriaux says.

That means no more struggling to find people on LinkedIn, friending the wrong person on Facebook or not realizing that a potential client is huge on Twitter.

Today, Poken’s biggest clients are corporations like IBM and Microsoft, which pass the devices out at conferences, networking events and other trade shows. Catherine Ford from Navteq was so convinced by her Poken demo that she brought it to her company too, distributing the little doohickeys at a developer conference in Silicon Valley. The presence of Poken at Navteq’s booth created the most prized quality at a trade show: buzz. “It’s the perfect device to get people talking,” Ford says.

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