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In Two Years, Facebook Places Will Look Like This App

Colorado-based Vail Resorts Inc (MTN) has released what might be the most ridiculously cool and commercially aggressive mobile strategy in the iTunes App Store -- and it's an awesome preview of what bigger real-life social networks will look like soon. Here's how it works.

The company's new lift tickets come with embedded RFID chips, which are scannable through fabric at the base of the mountain when a skiier hops on the lift. The system uses that check-in, combined with information from your smartphone, to map out your day's ski runs, tally vertical feet traveled, and show you other statistics. There's also a social Web component; you can message other users through the app, and see where your buddies are on the mountain. (Check out the video above for the full run-down.)

This is exactly what Foursquare and Facebook wish they could be: a real-life social network with real context.

Of course, it's not the big networks' fault that they don't have this sort of contextual information: the Vail system, which they call Epic Mix, has the benefit of assuming a lot about its users. It knows they're somewhere on a given mountain; it knows they're skiing or snowboarding; and it gets the benefit of knowing when you check in and hop on the lift.

The "pins" you earn on Epic Mix (ala Foursquare "badges") also have the benefit of representing tangible, real-life accomplishments like riding a certain double-black diamond to the base. Real-world networks have to make vague and often useless assumptions about what a user is doing -- like giving a bartender the "bender" badge for checking in at work five nights in a row.

Real-life tracking is also less unreliable. The only "check-ins" you get are manual; there are no "RFID season passes" for the supermarket or the bank to read. Plus, you're moving around a vast geography that isn't as well-mapped. Lastly, you can't assume that everyone is checking in using the same system (e.g., Gowalla vs Foursquare) that you are.

Real-life social networks will soon approach this level of context. MasterCard (MC) is piloting RFID purchasing with debit cards, which would allow a system like Foursquare's to automatically check you in when you buy something. GPS tracking is getting better (check out the app Glympse) just as consumers' privacy concerns are loosening. And more of these discrete services are becoming interoperable.

More interesting is the money to be made.

Like Facebook, Mint (INTU), Amazon (AMZN) and other Web giants, Vail has tapped what could be a tremendously valuable data stream about its users. The company hasn't said what it's doing with data, but this app has the potential to provide invaluable information about season-pass-holding skiiers, their prime demographic.

If you're a season pass holder, they'll know who you ski with; your favorite mountains and runs; the time of year you usually go; and if you link your Epic Mix to Facebook or Twitter, to brag about this morning's gnarly run, then they'll have opportunity to push you messages in the social graph. All that leads to the potential for them to offer users group buying deals, last-minute discounts, and hyper-targeted packages.

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