Switched On: When gadgets talk in their sleep

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The Nintendo 3DS stands to democratize stereoscopy in a way society hasn't experienced since the View-Master craze, by offering 3D hardware more affordable than the current crop of televisions and PCs, and without requiring special glasses to see images pop out of the handheld's screen. But when it comes to innovation, the 3DS could represent a two-way street, for even as its 3D screen is focused on enhancing the handheld gaming experience, its "Pass" network technologies -- SpotPass and particularly StreetPass -- could have broader implications for the way we discover the world around us.

SpotPass is Nintendo's new background WiFi hotspot locator, sniffing for connectivity even while the device is asleep, in an attempt to download updates automatically and possibly also prevent piracy. Mainly, it is a stopgap in a world with expensive mobile broadband that is impractical to deliver in a $249 device used extensively by kids. We'll soon see if or how the 3DS can distinguish between open hotspots, those that require a simple acceptance of terms, or truly private hotspots. Regardless, in Nintendo's new world of unattended functionality, SpotPass is but a means to an end.

StreetPass, on the other hand, represents what the 3DS can do with ad hoc connectivity as it continues its low-powered slumber. Nintendo videos show pairs of Nintendo 3DS's passively exchanging Mii profiles as people pass by each other on the street, but that's just the beginning. Nintendo 3DS games such as Capcom's Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition can, with the owners' permissions, create entire battles, crown victors, and deliver rewards all without any intervention from the players. You can imagine the possibilities.

Still, the 3DS is a controlled ecosystem with little room for software development freedom, and even if its sales far exceeded Nintendo's expectations, it would still be dwarfed by the install base of cellular handsets. But what if one took the concept of StreetPass and put it into smartphones that are always carried with us and always connected to the internet? It could open up new worlds of passive information gathering to create or augment location-based services, for dating and social networking, and opt-in advertising. Check-in services such as Foursquare could, for example, be automated via an identifying token at a location. And if you wonder why mobile is such a strategic area for Facebook, consider the potential impact of a Google service that would let hundreds of millions of Android phone users create and exchange profiles around their Google Places. A network of metropolitan or even zip code-level Craigslists could be grown very quickly, and ones that might never need a Missed Connections section.

As with any medium that might seek to balance free consumer expression and unwanted communication, one of the biggest challenges for such a service would be around filtering and feedback. Assuming the results of passive interactions could be checked immediately after they were conducted, messages or profiles might need to be pre-screened to assure they are represented appropriately before they are allowed to be recklessly beamed to urban masses. Or perhaps to avoid the encouraging of stalking, collected information might require a time delay of a few hours or occur only once at the end of the day.

There is a long history of Web sites and services connecting both friends and strangers for mutual benefit. These include eBay, LinkedIn, Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook,, various directories, and countless special interest forums that have their roots in the days of dial-up bulletin board systems.. A significant slice of what they offer, though, could be adapted to passive proximity-based exchange. If a handset powerhouse or plucky startup can leverage this potential new mode of communication, the rewards could include achievements well worth unlocking.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.