Published: Dec. 1, 2009 By

rick han

Associate professor Rick Han of computer science developed the hoozat iPhone application to enable users to check out the Facebook and Twitter profiles of people around them. Mark Leffingwell, courtesy Boulder Camera

You’ve just wandered into a party and there, through the haze, you see him — movie-star gorgeous, hip, laid-back, just your type. But who knows?

So instead of approaching him, you take out your iPhone and in seconds you’re scanning Mr. Right’s — or Ms. Right’s, as the case may be — Facebook profile. Freshly armed with that information, you can now decide if you want to cross the room and introduce yourself.

Sound cool? Helpful? Maybe a little sinister? Welcome to hoozat, a free iPhone application released in June by TechoShark, a company started in 2008 by CU associate professor of computer science Rick Han and a group of graduate students.

“We came up with the idea . . . of combining a location-aware iPhone with social-networking sites,” Han says. “It’s a fundamental human question: Who is that? We thought it would be interesting to be able to find out about people in your vicinity by looking them up on Facebook.”

With hoozat, users can make their online information — currently through Facebook and Twitter — available to people nearby. The application gives the general location of other users by kilometers, not pinpoint mapping.

“It knows roughly your location and where other users are,” Han says. “So you are going to see people around you. Then you can click on [social networking] links to find out more about them.”

Trolling for information about a hottie at a party is one way to use the application, but Han says it’s “really a business tool.”

“Business is all about who you know,” he says. “The whole point is that you want people to meet you. hoozat is sort of like advertising why you’re here.”

The application is available as a free download from the Apple iTunes store. TechoShark’s business plan envisions revenue generated from ads and coupons pitched at users and sales of a future premium service that would offer more features.

“We’re thrilled that Rick is able to really understand not only the technology, but the business part,” says Kurt Smith, director of the CU College of Engineering Entrepreneurship Program, which helped get TechoShark up and running. “He’s got the right people involved, and he’s got the resources together to launch [hoozat] in the marketplace.”

The TechoShark team is already hard at work connecting hoozat to event mapping sites that would allow users to scan for events of interest in a specified geographic area and see who’s in attendance.

“It can help you figure out if you want to shoot over there and meet all these players who are in your field,” Han says.

But hoozat is like a battered, old phone book compared to Han’s vision of a future filled with ubiquitous, “context aware” computers. He approvingly cites the 2002 Steven Spielberg science-fiction film Minority Report, in which store computers and monitors greet customers by name and inquire about recent purchases.

“It’s the environment talking to you, pulling your likes and dislikes and history,” Han says. “It’s not quite — but almost — like reading your mind.”

It’s an idea, he admits, some people might find a tad creepy. That’s why hoozat allows users to turn off, opt out and disappear from the system at any time.

“We do assume that those who sign up actually want to be found,” he says, pointing out how many people casually put detailed personal information online.

Whatever the future holds, the technology has already attracted plenty of attention and funding. TechoShark has won a $100,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation, CU’s New Venture Challenge business plan competition for computer science and an IQ Award from the Boulder County Business Report.

“We are very glad to see TechoShark get started,” says Kate Tallman (MBA’01), CU-Boulder’s director of technology transfer. “They are one of the few computer science and software startups to come out of CU.”

Han, who calls himself a “budding entrepreneur,” is excited not just for TechoShark’s future but how hoozat can benefit CU.

“Google and Yahoo both came out of Stanford,” he says. “If someone is good enough to go IPO [Initial Public Offering], all that will rebound to CU. It’s not just money. It will attract faculty and help recruit staff. We think we’re helping to foster an even more adventurous entrepreneurial environment in engineering and computer science.”