For many people, social media is synonymous with endless scrolling, constant distractions and blatant attempts to rack up comments, likes and views. But Justin Fuisz is betting on a different kind of social network — one that prioritizes real-life interactions with your good friends.
On Octi, the social network that Fuisz and his team launched on Wednesday, the primary way for users to connect with each other is in person. More than that, the app effectively encourages users to spend time in each others’ company, even though they still have phones in their hands.
But in a very tech-in-2020 situation, a seemingly idealistic social network could raise a new set of concerns about our privacy in public places, as it uses facial recognition to identify and add friends near you — and perhaps strangers, too.
With the app, a user can point his or her smartphone cameras at a friend nearby to see everything that person is into, which can range from photos and tweets to favorite YouTube videos and songs streamed on Spotify (SPOT). Those interests appear in the form of a social profile that looks like it’s floating around the person’s body like a virtual carousel. Octi uses augmented reality to power the platform, a technology that overlays digital images on top of the real world.
The social network does give users the option to view friends’ profiles when they’re not together. But users have to be with each other in person to see certain features, such as special effects, stickers, GIFs or filters they’re using to alter their appearance on the app, including sparkles and hearts.
“I want people to use it when they’re together, sitting on that couch or wherever, and they would typically ignore each other and take out Instagram,” Fuisz, Octi’s CEO, told CNN Business. “I want them to use it to connect, to communicate, express culture, share music, brands – all this fun stuff that people are already doing in other ways, but I want them to do it in the real world, when they’re together.”
It’s an upbeat pitch for a social network at a time when more established services like Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR) are under scrutiny for their potential negative impacts on user well-being, and on society as a whole. It also may hint at a new era of applications, powered by AR. In the future, we could see more “ways to socialize with people that won’t involve looking down at your phone,” according to Debra Aho Williamson, principal analyst at research firm eMarketer.
But this approach could also raise new concerns.
In addition to AR, Octi uses facial recognition technology when users make friend requests and pull up profiles. The company said it has taken steps to safeguard that data so personally identifiable information isn’t stored in the cloud. But in theory, a user could point the app at a stranger in a public place, if they are close enough, and request to add them, as long as they’re on the platform.
In that case, the company said, the stranger’s profile photo and username would appear. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a user could point their phone at a stranger in a coffee shop and pull up their username, which could be similar to their actual name or appear on other accounts online linked to their real name.
Octi said users can make their profile photo and username whatever they want, so it doesn’t necessarily have to provide any information about their identity. Octi also believes this scenario is an extreme case and it hasn’t seen any issues with this come up during its “extensive” testing. It expects people to meet, and then add each other on Octi, as they would with other social networks.
In fact, the company is pitching itself as a company whose mission is to build a “socially responsible tech company” that values user privacy and data. Its website plays this up with phrases like: “The future is private.”
But if there’s one lesson from the last few years in tech, it’s that social media platforms are sometimes used in concerning ways the founders did not initially expect or intend.
“I’m concerned about the fact that facial recognition is being used, and I’m concerned that you can point the camera at a person and their name could pop up,” said Engin Kirda, executive director of Northeastern University’s cybersecurity and privacy institute.
Kirda said he finds the concept “very creepy” and worries bad actors could potentially use the app to identify strangers, and then crosscheck that information online to try to scam them. “It raises a number of security and privacy-related questions,” he said.
As with other large social networks, the Los Angeles-based startup hopes to become a one-stop destination of sorts. It would like to integrate with payment companies, dating apps and other platforms. To get there, Octi has raised $12 million in funding from some prominent investors including Anheuser-Busch InBev, Live Nation and Thrive Capital founder Josh Kushner. Previously, Fuisz built startup Fuisz Media, which focused on computer vision technology.
Of course, Octi faces tremendous competition in a crowded social media landscape. In addition to big names like Instagram and Snapchat (SNAP), there are other platforms that encourage meeting in real life, such as Meetup. In order to stand out, Fuisz decided to focus on building a social network around AR.
“There’s so much noise there. You’re not going to break through,” he said. “Instead of competing head to head in a game you’d likely lose, I built a product and platform that’s so different.”
Octi and Fuisz aren’t alone in eying the potential for AR in social media. Snapchat pioneered quirky AR filters that add bunny ears and flower crowns to users’ faces; Instagram has followed suit. In a Facebook post this month, CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicted that during the 2020s, the world will see “breakthrough” augmented reality glasses, which will “redefine our relationship with technology.”
Octi said it tested different versions of the app with “thousands” of high school students in Southern California to get teenagers’ input. The app is now available on iOS, and an Android version is in the works.