It's hard to listen to Paul Davison and not get swept up in his enthusiasm, hard not to want to buy into his grand vision for the app his small company built.
Davison is the high-energy CEO of Highlight, a people discovery app for iPhone that came out last January, and that was widely predicted to start its world domination tour at the 2012 South by Southwest Interactive festival in much the same way that Twitter did in 2007 and Foursquare did in 2009.
Looking back, it's clear that much of the reason so many people expected so much of Highlight heading into SXSW was because of Davison's intensity, because he believes so passionately in what he's doing. But in fact, while a whole lot of people tried Highlight at SXSW, the app -- which at its core automatically alerts users to the nearby presence of others with similar connections and interests, via their Facebook profiles -- didn't move the needle all that much.
Still, eight months later, Highlight keeps humming along. It's now a seven-person San Francisco startup instead of a two-person San Francisco startup, and Davison continues to believe that the app has the very real potential to change the world as we know it. All you have to do is come along for the ride.
The next step in Highlight's evolution starts today, with the release of an all-new version, this time for Android as well as iPhone. Geared this time around to offer four times the battery life as it did during SXSW, the new Highlight was built, Davison said, to give users new ways to share, consume content, and interact with others on the service.
Highlight, like competing apps, such as Glancee (which was acquired by Facebook) and Kismet, was built to help users connect with people around them. Davison described the user profile as an all-important element that's "floating above your head," filled with metadata that lets you see things about people nearby that you haven't been able to see before.
To start with, when the new Highlight alerts you to a fellow user nearby, it also tells you the last time that happened (if ever), as well as other people who have interacted with them through the service. And if they've shared the information, you can see their hometown, where they went to school, and their relationship status.
Another new element is the "Things about me" section of the profile, a place where people can add small personal tidbits -- like facts and stories about themselves -- that others can see. Users' friends can also add these tidbits, if they're invited to do so. "Now, anytime that a friend says something about you, or says, 'Ask him about this,'" Davison explained, "it gets stuck to you. As you walk around, people can see [those things] about you."
There's also a "My favorite things" section that lets users share things they really like with others on Highlight, complete with pictures. Davison hopes that the kinds of things people add will be more meaningful than what they "Like" on Facebook. He envisions this being the part of the profile where people note things like their favorite bands, books, apps, cities, and so on. "It's really a place to showcase the things you care about," he said.
Lastly, the new Highlight profiles include a section called "Let Me Know," where users can say things they're looking for, such as that they're hiring, or looking for a tennis partner, or that they want to know where they should have lunch. The app also lets other users respond to these entreaties.
Because people tend to spend a lot of time in the same places (at and near work or home), and around others who are also there frequently, the new version of Highlight was built to prioritize people's newest information. That's because, Davison explained, it would be boring to always see the same things pop up about the same people. So, he said, when the app recognizes people it has seen before, it will always showcase the newest information about someone.
People discovery apps are a fairly new thing, and some have worried that they offer a very creepy way to peer into others' lives. After all, seeing a greeting pop up from someone you've never met before can be a bit unsettling, even if you've chosen to run an app like Highlight.
With the latest version, Highlight has added a way for users to reach out to those nearby that is less intrusive, and that assumes no reciprocal communication. Called the "High Five" feature, it's meant to let users do nothing but say hi to someone nearby, with no mechanism for a response.
Davison said that while Highlight's team has been heads-down for several months working on the new version, the app has been steadily picking up new users, even if it didn't become a mainstream phenomenon after SXSW as many had predicted. The company is well-funded, he said, and doesn't need to worry about revenue anytime soon. That means, he continued, that Highlight can focus on slowly but surely building an app that brings to bear the true potential of ubiquitous mobile devices filled to brimming with sensors that can measure almost everything we do from moment to moment.
And this is where Davison's passion takes over. He sees Highlight as nothing less than the standard-bearer for a medium that's as important as the Web itself. He thinks that tools like his that let people share everything about themselves, and learn about new people nearby, are the wave of the future. "We're obsessed with learning about new people," he said, "peering into people's lives and learning more about them."
Highlight, then, is "literally giving the world a sixth sense that's on par with the other senses."
Is he right? It's hard to know. But when someone argues as energetically as Davison does, it's just as hard to doubt them.