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Nevin Martell | Photo: Illustration by Donovan Foote | October 29, 2012
One DC company is turning your smartphone into the key to the future.
No one gives away treasure. You have to follow the map, break the code or find the key. Maybe even defeat a dragon. But if Peter Corbett has his way, you’ll only need your smartphone to claim a prize in the future.
The founder and CEO of the DC-based digital agency iStrategyLabs, with clients like Audi, Microsoft and ESPN, has created a new technology where companies can reward customers using social media—but in real time, in the real world, with real stuff. All users have to do is check in on Foursquare, or type out a 140-word micro-message. Instantaneously, they are given exclusive access to free goodies inside a previously locked container—maybe a new product to sample or a branded piece of promotional gear—that could be located in a retail outlet, on a high-traffic street corner or even at a concert venue.
This revolutionary application of social media was born because Corbett was bored with traditional approaches. “People kept saying, ‘We want more likes. We want more tweets. We want more check-ins,’” he says. “Well, who cares?”
So Corbett asked one of his creative technologists, Zach Saale, a simple question: “Can you unlock a box with a Foursquare check-in?” He had two weeks and $500 to come up with an answer. Saale took a simple cashbox, added a few electronic innards, wrote some top-secret code and transformed it into a social-media activated treasure chest. Users simply tapped Check-in Here on their iPhone screens and then watched as the key turned, and the top popped open.
This idea of instant gratification through social media was highly appealing to iStrategyLabs’ client General Electric, who commissioned their own un-lockbox. Except they wanted a vintage GE refrigerator filled with ice-cold beers rigged up. The frosty promotion—dubbed the Social Fridge—debuted in March at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. “The reaction was universal joy,” says Corbett. “It was exciting to watch.”
Though it’s hard to argue with the awesomeness of free beers—or bottles of Champagne, for that matter—this burgeoning entrepreneur has far more outlandish ideas for the forward-thinking technology. “You could build a social machine that has Lady Gaga inside,” he says. “After the millionth tweet during the Super Bowl halftime show, she pops out of it with fireworks.”
Before he makes a legion of little monsters very happy though, Corbett is thinking more practically. He hopes to start producing what he has dubbed Social Machines on a larger scale here in the District some time next year.
This will be a status-quo rocker for a buttoned-up town that isn’t known for manufacturing nor tangible cutting-edge tech products. “It’s always been my job to buck the trend of where I am,” says Corbett. “I like to freak people out a little bit.”
He remembers going to a meeting with some top brass at the Department of Defense and wondering whether he needed to put on a tie. He decided against it. “I walk into rooms where everyone is wearing suits, and I’m the guy in Pumas, jeans and a T-shirt,” he says. “And I realize that’s why they hired me.”