December 1, 2023

App City: For the Sportaneous App, an Uneven Success



When Rachel Sterne, the city’s chief digital officer, talks about the potential that software developers have to create innovative new services for New Yorkers, she often mentions Sportaneous. Indeed, the application is a great idea: people who want to play pickup sports can create a game and invite others in their area to participate, or join a game that someone else has created. The app won the popular choice prize, as well as second prize over all, at the NYC Big Apps 2.0 contest in March.

The only problem is that the app is not always useful. I tried it repeatedly this summer in hopes of finding a basketball game in Greenwich Village or Astoria, Queens, but never set foot on a court. Internet services like this rely on something called the network effect, meaning that they work well only after they have become popular. With only about 100 people in its system, Sportaneous was stuck at zero.

Changing tack, the app’s founders set out at the start of the current academic year to build a critical mass of users in the area around Columbia University. So far, 900 people have become active users, said Omar Haroun, one of the app’s developers. Sportaneous has been used to arrange group runs, Ultimate Frisbee matches and even a large-scale game of Quidditch, the sport played at Harry Potter’s wizard school.

“If you have everyone in one neighborhood on this, it provides value,” said Mr. Haroun, a graduate student at Columbia. “If you have five people in every neighborhood, it doesn’t really work.”

The app is available in Philadelphia, San Diego and New York, but its creators are focusing their efforts on Upper Manhattan. It offers a list and a map of events that have been proposed in a certain area, with details such as how many people are coming and how competitive the game will be. There are 14 kinds of activities to choose from, and each event has a message board on which participants can discuss important details such as who will bring the ball.

The app also allows users to create private games, posting listings that only invited guests can see — a new feature that turned out to be very important. People are much more likely to use Sportaneous as a way to supplement and expand the social circles they already belong to than they are to compete against people they have never met.

Zach Lane, a Columbia graduate student, had used Sportaneous sparingly in the past, to play basketball, and was turned off by meeting up with people who were not skilled enough to challenge him. “It’s hard to really get into a game that people can enjoy when you don’t control who’s a part of it,” he said.

Now, Mr. Lane plays several times a week in private games arranged by the Columbia Ballers’ Group. The group has more than 60 members, all invited by friends of the original members.

Still, this does not quite address the problem that Sportaneous originally set out to solve: how to connect people with nothing in common but a desire to play and a few free hours on a Thursday afternoon. But Mr. Haroun hopes that the recent success gives the app’s developers a starting point for more ambitious experiments.

“We’re learning lessons about human nature in general, about how to overcome people’s inertia and sticking with what they know,” he said.


Have a favorite New York City app? Send tips via e-mail to or via Twitter to @joshuabrustein.

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Shortcuts: Adapting to the Reality of Everyday Video Chatting

WHEN I was young, people marveled at the idea of making a phone call and actually seeing the person you were talking to.

But like individual jet packs, it seemed a futuristic concept that was always just around the corner, but would never actually arrive.

Well, the future may be now. Videoconferencing, Skype and similar technology are not new, but neither have they been widely used by the average consumer or business. That’s changing, though.

“I think we’ve hit a critical mass,” said Rick Osterloh, head of Skype’s consumer product management. This month, Microsoft announced that it planned to buy Skype, the leader in Internet and voice communication, for a staggering $8.5 billion.

So why is the technology taking off now? What exactly are the options out there?

And, perhaps more important, what impact will this have besides requiring more people who work at home to change out of their pajamas?

First, a primer on what we’re talking about. There are all sorts of choices out there for those who want to talk face-to-face without being in the same room. Philipp Karcher, a researcher at Forrester Research, helped me sort them out.

First, there are desktop platforms that allow face-to-face video chats and Web conferencing, among them Skype, MSN Messenger, Google and Yahoo Messenger.

Skype is by far the largest, claiming 170 million users. Calls are free unless they involve more than one person or are from a Skype user to a non-Skype user.

Companies like Fring, Tango and Qik (which has been acquired by Skype), also allow video calling between smartphones and from mobile devices to desktops. Apple, through Facetime, offers video calling between Apple devices.

Just to give you an idea of the popularity of such a concept: the first day Skype began offering video calls on iPhones, on Jan. 1, users placed one million video calls from their mobile phones.

Next is the idea of room-based videoconferencing. “A lot of people invested in it over the last 20 years,” Mr. Karcher said. That consists of a camera on a screen allowing groups of people to talk to and see each other. Companies are now replacing or upgrading these systems with high-definition systems.

And the “corporate jet of videoconferencing” is Telepresence, which as much as possible immerses people in a lifelike situation, using multiple cameras and screens and specially designed rooms.

Such technology will probably be slower to catch on, Mr. Karcher said, since the cost is high. Telepresence can cost up to $400,000 a room.

Finally, there is virtual life, which is used most frequently to allow people to virtually attend conventions and conferences. It creates worlds where people — sometimes in the guise of avatars — can “visit” these places and wander around just as they would at a real conference.

The reason we’re finally seeing video calls and conferencing grow so rapidly, Mr. Osterloh said, was “the pervasive adoption of broadband and PCs and really powerful smartphones.”

“Whenever technology is first introduced, you see a strong inertia toward using what you’re comfortable with,” he said. “And, of course, there are times you don’t want to see people face-to-face and times you don’t want to do video calls, but generally we’ve seen a huge demand for more and better.”

And as more and more people are telecommuting and not working in the same office — or state or country — there’s more of a need to find other ways to communicate.

My first reaction is to be wary of yet another tool that stops us from getting together in person.

“The more communications channels to the world in our living room, the less likely we are to leave the living room,” said Thomas Lewis, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and a practicing psychiatrist.

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