Yes, Now That Stranger Across the Bar Can Text You. No, It’s Not As Scary As It Sounds, Says Mobile App Developer PoKos

Imagine a world where you can point your phone at the people you’re interested in talking to, and a message magically appears on their phones, regardless of whether you’ve ever spoken to them before or actually have their digits in your possession. (Heaven forbid you actually talk to them face to face.)

Now, imagine there’s an app for that. And it’s not just a flicker in some developer’s eye, but is live and approved on the Apple iTunes App Store. Thanks to Portsmouth, NH-based PoKos Communications.

Timo Platt, CEO and founder of PoKos, touts the mobile technology as less invasive and exhibitionist than the check-ins we’ve all become so accustomed to from providers like Foursquare and Facebook Places. He says the app could actually help deter creepy men from approaching women in bars, rather than the opposite, which is an initial concern from many when they first hear about the PoKos Chat app’s Point-and-Chat feature.

“You can make an overture without going up and saying hello in person,” he says. “If she’s going to block and ignore you, that’s going to deter you from going up to talk to her in person.”

Once recipients have been designated (using a phone’s camera), the app sends them a message saying the user name of the sender would like to talk to them. (Senders can choose to remain private, or identify themselves with a picture or short description.) Those who have been targeted can choose to engage the messaging, or ignore it and even block future contact. And the message sender doesn’t actually get your number unless you opt to give it to them. “We’re on the side of privacy for the recipient at all times,” says Platt, a telecom and mobile industry veteran who worked for ConTel, the firm that Verizon Wireless sprang from through a series of mergers and acquisitions.

For now, the recipient has to have the PoKos Chat app installed on his or her phone to receive the Point-and-Chat message and engage in other group chat features (more on those later), but Platt sees that changing in later versions of the software. He hopes that PoKos will eventually become firmware, where the technology comes preloaded on devices under the branding of a particular phone or carrier. (Platt also hopes the newly created word PoKos will become synonymous with mobile messaging.)

Platt is keeping pretty quiet on how exactly the PoKos technology picks up the phone of the person you want to point and chat with, saying that it relies on “about five component capabilities to discern” it’s the person you actually want to speak with, and that PoKos has invented and developed the processes and methods for making it work. A forerunner to this person-to-person style of communication is the technology Palm Pilot devices had in the late ’90s for exchanging contact info via a wireless beaming action between devices, he says.

“Some of our methods bundle a combination of current and historic signal capabilities and technologies, and we utilize IP, wireless, cellular, telephony and other networks to transmit our messages,” he says. PoKos has filed for U.S. and international patents protecting the Point-and-Chat feature it developed with these components, Platt says.

To backtrack, the PoKos Chat app has actually been available since November on the iTunes store, but the edgy Point-and-Chat feature was approved just two weeks ago. It started out by offering a feature called Zoom, which gives the ability to engage in public or private chats with PoKos users nearby, using just PoKos user names and without having to give away contact details like their actual phone number, e-mail address, or social network profile (unless users want to). Consumers can also use PoKos to text each other within the app, without having to chip away at the text messaging limits within their cell phone plans, and can text groups of people at once. “We tried to mirror a texting application that everybody uses and blend new features into a pure text app,” he says.

In Platt’s mind, the PoKos Chat app isn’t a high-tech stalking tool, but a platform for enhancing communications between users and helping brand sponsors better connect with consumers. Both the Zoom and Point-and-Chat features enable brands to engage consumers at events they’re sponsoring, without mobile banner ads or couponing.

“People don’t really want their mobile platforms to be a spam couponing vehicle,” says Platt. With PoKos, event sponsors can send the consumers a notification wishing to communicate a specific message, but the PoKos app user can choose to ignore it or engage it. “They never get the recipients’ contact information and don’t get location information,” Platt says.

The app could even enrich experiences at concerts, sporting events, or business conferences. Musicians could use PoKos to get the audience’s take on playlists or encore songs at concert performances, or the crowd at the TD Garden could use the app to chat about Shaq’s performance at a Celtics game, Platt says. “Having a shared experience is three times better than sitting in the game and watching it by yourselves,” says Platt.

Ever want to chat with a really inspiring speaker at an event but weren’t able to catch him or her? Platt says attendees can use Point-and-Chat to message a speaker with a question or follow-up point, or start a reaction discussion with other members of the audience.

The PoKos Chat app will likely hit the Android market mid April and be ready for BlackBerry sometime next month, Platt says. Foursquare is working on a group chat technology that centers around location, but that ends once users leave a venue, whereas PoKos conversations can continue beyond a certain geographical spot, Platt says. The PoKos team, which operates out of the New Hampshire Innovation and Commercialization Center, consists of three co-founders and a number of contractors across the globe, and it counts author and Mobile Future Institute CEO Chuck Martin as an advisor, Platt says.

The company plans to make sure the technology is stable before looking to really scale the user base—which it will do with contests and other things that “make it fun to spread the word about the product,” Platt says. For now, PoKos is looking to bootstrap the operation and then potentially land some solid strategic partnerships. “It’s just a question of how fast we can grow smartly,” says Platt.

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4 responses to “Yes, Now That Stranger Across the Bar Can Text You. No, It’s Not As Scary As It Sounds, Says Mobile App Developer PoKos”

  1. Drew Baye says:

    I hope there is a way to automatically block this, that it is included in an iPhone software update, and that blocked is the default.

    Not only is this a huge invasion of privacy (if you don’t have my number you have no business sending me messages) but the potential for misuse by advertisers is huge. What’s to stop them from developing a device that automatically texts ads to everyone who walks past it?

  2. Adrian Meli says:

    Neat idea, though it does not seem likely it will work until they get around the need to download the app to receive. I wonder what technology they are using to target devices and how accurate it is, especially in crowds of people…

  3. timo platt says:

    PoKos is committed to give users control of their mobile phone experience, and unlike some leading LBS apps, PoKos Chat preserves user privacy. At any time or at any given venue, the user can stay in private mode (which prevents receipt of a Point-and-Chat message) and use PoKos Chat for all her texting and IM needs. Even if the user chooses public mode, she can decline any inbound message; ignore the sender; or block the sender.
    PoKos is similarly committed to prevent spam, and to limit commercial use with strict controls to meet user expectations.
    In summary: user choice, user control, user privacy.