Refresh's personal dossiers take the work out of small talk

By James Robinson , written on February 6, 2014

From The News Desk

If the future gets its way we may never have to remember anything about anyone ever again.

Immediately after speaking with Bhavin Shah, co-founder of Refresh, I downloaded his startup’s app, billed to be the only mobile service that provides “dossiers” of information about the people you know, meet and run into. After giving it access to a not inconsiderable amount of my personal information - calendar, email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn - it whirred into life.

After logging in it presented to me a listing for the day and the people on my schedule. Having just concluded our conversation, Shah was at the top of the list. Within the space of a minute, I knew his employment history, where he’d studied, where he’d checked in on FourSquare, what his wife’s name was and where she worked, the companies he advises, his political affiliations, his favorite sports teams, that he’d Tweeted about his children in the weekend and where he’d vacationed last year. I was captivated and terrified.

Refresh was formed in 2011 and the app has been in public beta mode since the end of last year. But this isn’t the full extent of its breaking news. The company today launched a version of its service adapted for Google Glass, preparing glass wearers for meetings by loading up “glanceable” factoids about the people on their schedule.

“Google approached us early in our development, right after Glass had been launched last year and there was such overlap between what we were both trying to do,” Shah says. It’s understandable that the two would pair. Insights that flash up into a person’s eyeline are more seamlessly integrated into user experience than the ones you have to reach for your phone and start up an app to absorb.

For Shah, the idea brewed for a decade. In 2004, as Business Development Manager for educational toy company Leapfrog he was invited on a diplomatic mission to Afghanistan alongside former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. He witnessed the screeds of information that were supplied to Thompson about each person he was going to meet and the minders on hand to whisper things into his ear ahead of each new handshake.

“It occurred to me that everyone could benefit from this sort of information. So much of business is about personal relationships,” Shah says. “Unfortunately the technology wasn’t there for it until recently.”

The way Shah wants it to work he says, is maybe you have a business meeting with someone and it gives you a few pointers about how to make smalltalk: an article they’ve liked online or where they studied. You can jot down personal notes of things you want to be reminded to bring up. If you know the person and are Facebook friends it can show you recent photos to mention in conversation and pretend you saw organically and totally remembered all on your own.

“You can go straight into asking about the things that matter, rather than feeling around,” Shah says. The next day, I use his tool to study up on a person I’m due to meet. It shows me their Amazon wish list and the electric refrigerator model they’re hoping to buy. I’m certain that this would be a creepy icebreaker.

“We’re aiming for it to be information that will delight, rather than surprise a person,” Shah says.

Shah says it is a constant source of debate at Refresh about whether the app is disingenuous, allowing people to pass themselves off as attentive listeners with long memories when really they just have a program set to deliver conversational cue cards. He sees Refresh as drawing on pre-existing resources and pooling them together, a time-saving tool and an equalizer of sorts.

“I think with social media and the Internet there’s a phenomenon where because we figure that we can easily find information again, we’re less inclined to remember it,” Shah says.

Refresh doesn’t overstep its privacy permissions, Shah says. It has been set up to deliver completely accurate insights about as many of your friends as the information is available for, rather than patchy insights about all of them.

As a journalist it’s not an entirely new tool to see, more a smoother, more mobile and savvy version of free online peoplefinders like Pipl. It processes information at speed, working effectively as a reverse social media aggregator.

Refresh’s first big publicity push is around its Google Glass tie-in, despite having started off development as a plain old smartphone app. Shah is nonplussed about the risks of tying his new product into an untested platform, which in its early days has been met with derision, snickers and privacy concerns.

“I think in the early days of any technology there’s tension. When the Walkman first came in there was a backlash against the first people who had them, before they became commonplace,” Shah says. I’m not sure it’s the same issue, but he has unflappable faith.

So far, only a few people have the ability to test out Refresh on Google Glass and see it’s true vision of seamlessness, but the app is an interesting plaything even if you’ve never had a business meeting in your life and want to be terrified about how much information is publicly available about you.

I’m not sure I’ll take its lead on smalltalk though, sticking with discussion about the weather is a lot less threatening.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]