We go about our daily lives, unaware of the history that surrounds us. The street you’re on was the site of a major bank robbery 25 years ago, resulting in the death of the three robbers. That hotel in front of you was the scenery for a major movie, starring Clint Eastwood. The field you’re driving by in Virginia? A Civil War battle was fought there.

But we don’t know these things, because it’s not like we’re going to open Wikipedia and search for the history or context of where we are. That’s where the contextual Web comes in, showing us the information we want to know. But until Google Glasses comes out and shows us information in our lenses, we’re stuck in the present.

Bridging this present desire for historical information with the promise of a future with contextual Web pop-ups is an app called Tagwhat. As CEO and co-founder Dave Elchoness described it, the Boulder-based company is trying to harness the massive wealth of information on the Internet and tie it directly to the physical world. What this means in practice is scraping information from YouTube and Wikipedia, identifying the content, and tying it to longitudinal information.

Elchoness, along with his two other co-founders Angus Shee and Donald Cramer, launched Tagwhat in June of 2009. But the story of Elchoness’ career begins 10 years before, as an employment lawyer dealing with sexual harassment cases.

As Elchoness tells it, he was in law school deciding which type of law-focused career would be the most interesting, and he came to the conclusion that he “wanted to do Jerry Springer law.” Elchoness stuck with it for ten years, eventually transitioning to a job in IT, and then leaving that for new ventures. Ventures like his own startup.

Elchoness knew people in the local Boulder startup community, and at the same time, he was thinking about the wealth of information that exists and is publicly available, but that isn’t easily accessible.

So Elchoness, along with his co-founders, began to experiment with augmented reality. They put RFID tags into clothing, enabling the tagging of people and tracking them with smartphones, bringing up individual profiles on the wearers. They put RFID tags onto soldiers’ clothing in training scenarios, allowing officers to pull up the soldiers’ history by pointing a smartphone at the training ground.

But the problem, as Elchoness put it, is that they “were too far ahead of market.” The technology was definitely advanced, but it reached the point of being akin to Minority Report, which probably wouldn’t go over well with most people.

But the technology was still solid, and so Elchoness and his team launched Tagwhat, with the goal of pulling the capabilities of smartphones and location-based information together with the petabytes of contextual information on the Web. It uses some of the same technology, but is a bit more palatable for the masses.

Today, the app provides contextual information wherever you are. For example, I’m in Boulder, Col. right now, and when I open the application up, there’s not only information from Wikipedia, but also stories from Colorado University that act as a virtual tour guide of the campus, showing me the type of information I wouldn’t even know to look for.

The stories from CU are an example of Tagwhat’s secondary information source. Aside from just scraping openly available and open source information, Tagwhat also allows publishers and individuals to make stories available for the public. This information is categorized by Tagwhat, and is then put in front of the appropriate audience.

What this means in practice is that Tagwhat provides a number of filterable channels for users. If you don’t want to see any information about food, you can turn it off. If you want to see more about music and entertainment, you can turn that channel on. The channel mechanism also provides Tagwhat’s primary revenue stream to begin with, by allowing organizations to put sponsored channels in the application.

As an example, Tagwhat can team up with a local tourism bureau, which then puts together a tour guide of a location or city. The organizations pays $50 per month for a localized channel shown to nearby users, and $250 per month for a global channel shown to all users. This revenue stream is the first possibility that Tagwhat could rely upon, although Elchoness did point out that in the future it might make sense to target businesses with localized offers.

To say that the experience of using the app is nice is lowballing it. I travel quite a bit, as you — the well-informed and rather good looking reader — are probably aware of. But in my travels, I often have trouble learning about where I am. I’m not talking about finding a restaurant or a place to eat, although that is a problem, but finding out about the history of a place. Normally, I’d need a tour guide. Now, I can just use the Internet.

The one problem with Tagwhat so far, though, is that the implementation isn’t perfect yet. It’s immediately obvious that the best experience for this is to have the application running in the background, and when relevant information is available, it sends a push notification. This  problem is only temporary, according to Elchoness.

More than the user value, Tagwhat is also valuable because of its data. As Tagwhat co-founder Angus Shee put it, this information can be “plugged into” hardware like Google Glasses. This is good for users, but it also gives Tagwhat a potential exit, as the contextually aware hardware will need information like Tagwhat’s.

Until that happens though, Tagwhat’s value is very clear: a free tour guide that caters to what you want to know.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]