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TouchBase tries (one more time) to reinvent the business card

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 4, 2014 07:30 AM

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Is it really the year 2014 and we are still handing each other rectangular scraps of paper when we want to exchange contact information?

Sadly, it is.

Remember the PalmPilot, which let you beam your digits over an infrared link? The Bump app? QR codes printed on the back of cards?

Even my current solution of choice — LinkedIn's CardMunch app — relies on unseen human beings to look at a photo I take of a business card and key in the data. That's inefficient and costly, but thankfully LinkedIn picks up the tab as a marketing expense.

An MIT startup called TouchBase Technologies is proposing a better solution. Its product looks just like a paper business card that you can carry in your wallet and pawn off on unsuspecting victims. But when tapped to an iPhone's screen, it pulls up the individual's photo, contact info, Twitter handle, and the option to connect with them on LinkedIn. The cards can also magically make a video clip, slide show, or company website appear.

saitoyeung_photo.jpgTouchBase is launching a crowdfunding campaign today, aiming to raise $30,000. The company is offering a trial package of 36 cards for a pledge of $25. CEO Sai To Yeung, left, says the company expects its pricing to be competitive with some of the higher-end business cards available online, like those from Yeung is on leave from the MBA program at MIT's Sloan School of Management; CTO Jonathan Warneke is still enrolled as an undergrad student.

The company sent me a few sample cards yesterday. (See below. They looked and felt like premium business cards, but were impossible to tear in half.) I navigated on my iPhone browser to a special address on the TouchBase website, and then tapped a card with my name on it on the screen. Nothing happened. So I heeded the instructions they sent, which said that you have to remove your phone's case. When I did that, and tapped the card again, in a few seconds my photo and contact info showed up on the screen. I tried the same with two other cards they'd sent along, and it worked seamlessly.

touchbase3.jpgSandwiched inside the cards, Yeung explained, is a conductive, metallic ink printed in a special pattern. That pattern, when touched to an iPhone's screen, serves as your unique identifier, and brings up whatever website or information page you've asked it to. It's a nifty little hack, and Yeung says they can create billions of different patterns.

As to the case issue, Yeung says, "We realized the card stock we used for the preview cards were too stiff, and made it difficult for the entire pattern to lie flat if there was a case with ridges. We're working on selecting a more flexible material to allow the card to bend more."

Yeung says that the startup eventually plans to create native apps for iPhone and Android, to make it easier to import tapped contacts to a phone's built-in address book software. But he said, "We plan to keep both, because the web app is a quick and easy way get others to quickly try out the app without having to make a download."

TouchBase participated in the DreamIt Ventures accelerator program in New York last summer.

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Innovation and technology news that matters, on a new website from the Boston Globe, featuring Scott Kirsner and other original reporting.

About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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