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New app lets you find--and make--friends in a crowd

Will eShadow, which debuts today at the IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems in Minneapolis, foster friendships or paranoia?

We all have that story about running into someone in the unlikeliest of places. The freshman year roommate from Chicago stumbles into your path in a crosswalk in London. The distant cousin nearly crashes into you on a mountain bike trail in Moab. The ex-lover you want to forget is sitting next to your table as you dine with a new lover you don't want to forget. Et cetera.

Who's in your zone? Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

Given the times our paths actually do cross, there must be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times when we just miss each other. And a professor at Ohio State University thinks our smartphones should be turning these missed encounters into actual ones.

Dong Xuan, associate professor of computer science and engineering, has developed eShadow (PDF) as a complement to social-networking tools such as Facebook. Through eShadow, which debuts today at the IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems in Minneapolis, Dong is encouraging users to input interests and personal details, which are broadcast to other eShadow users within 50 yards.

Hence the name; the broadcast follows the user around like a shadow. The question is whether that shadow is useful or creepy. Dong suggests that meeting people face-to-face is actually safer than online.

"We want eShadow to close social gaps and connect people in meaningful ways, while keeping the technology nonintrusive and protecting privacy," he says in a news release. "Online, people can steal others' identity, or lie easily without detection. It's much harder to pull off a masquerade in person."

Dong and his team say the biggest challenge was using wireless communication efficiently so as not to overwhelm the network.

Built into eShadow is, of course, the ability to use the software to a very limited degree (i.e., selecting only individuals from one's phone contacts, or manually deselecting people). Because who wants her boss to know she's at the bar next door instead of home sick with the flu?

Like it or not, one thing's for sure: In spite of the ability to tailor one's usage and one's ability to be detected by others, if innovations like eShadow take off, getting lost in a crowd may soon be a relic of the past.