Hello, My Name Is ENIAC

Computers come to name badges, and Wireless Center columnist Jim Louderback takes them in for a fashion check.

Weve all worn those name badges at conferences, and chances are weve all looked pretty geeky strolling down the street after we forget to take them off.

Now name badges have entered an entirely new level of geekiness with the new nTag. Instead of just a pre-printed badge, these are actually tiny computers with wireless networking built in. Built around an LCD screen, these name badges can do more than just display your name. Theyre also designed to keep you up-to-date on conference activities and to help you make new friends.

Heres how they work: Underneath the LCD screen is a tiny computer and two different types of wireless technology. The first, based on RFID technologies, gets scheduling and other conference updates from a central computer. The infrared-network lets two badges communicate when theyre facing each other.

And since this is a computer, the message on the screen will change, based on what each tag finds when it locates another. At the most basic level, it flips from just saying your name ("Jim Louderback") to an introduction (such as "Hi, Fred! Im Jim.")

But it goes beyond that. Conference organizers can ask attendees to fill out a multiple-choice questionnaire on a Web site, and those answers can then be downloaded to an individuals nTag. The tags use the answers to those questions to create matches, and try to spark up an introduction between two strangers. For example, you could program in sports teams and only match if the two tag-bearers liked the same team. If so, it could display a message like "Boy those Cubs sure got robbed," if both attendees matched on being Cubs fans, or "Ask me about the Yankees"—ideal for both Yankees and Red Sox fans.

It can be used for more work-related possibilities as well, allowing one user to enter something they want to know more about (say, C# programming) and then have it trigger only when it finds another person whos tagged himself as a C# expert.

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The device keeps track of all the people you meet, which is nice if you forget names a lot, like I do. Itll even tell you if youve met someone already, to avoid—according to the company—"repeat conversations."

Its a bit weird to have a name tag force-feed you icebreaking questions. Its a bit like a teleprompter for the real world. But for shy conference attendees, and indeed anyone who might need a little help finding someone else at a conference, it could be cool.

The design does need a little work. The nTag itself is heavy—about 6 ounces — and bulky, too. The user interface is a little difficult to navigate — just two buttons take you through all the options. And battery life is poor. The four AAA batteries die after just a few days, and the system doesnt put itself into sleep mode automatically.

Still, its an interesting first step. A lighter version, perhaps made out of the more-flexible OLED technology, could become cheap and light enough to use everywhere. Imagine using one at a bar, for example, or a swinging-singles weekend.

Still, its a little odd to have your own personal billboard, blaring out details of your life to whomever it thinks ought to match. And the security issues are important as well. You cant actually see what the nTag is displaying without peering over and twisting it upside down. Hacking the device to replace "Hi Im Jim" with "Kick Me"—or something worse—creates a pretty tempting target for those with more time than sense.

Oh, and one other thing. If you thought your garden-variety name-badge was an instant nerd-beacon when worn outside the venue, these are 100 times worse. Youll really look like a Poindexter sporting one of these on the streets of New York, Vegas or San Francisco. And in the end, thats the biggest problem the company has: how to make them cool enough for everyone but still useful enough to be worth the price.

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eWEEK.com Wireless Center Columnist Jim Louderback is editor in chief of Ziff Davis Internet.