The social networking craze has spread to some unexpected places: A Samsung refrigerator that lets you tweet, anyone? Not to be outdone, Charlotte, N.C.–based electronic-cigarette company Blu is making a push to update "social smoking for the social networking era," says Joshua Brustein in The New York Times. Later this month, Blu will start selling $80 "smart packs" (each holding five e-cigarettes) that vibrate and flash a blue light if another Blu e-smoker is within 50 feet. What's the real value here?
First, what's an e-cigarette?
A cigarette-shaped tube that generally consists of a nicotine cartridge (often flavored) attached to a battery-powered heating element. Users inhale and exhale an odorless, nicotine-infused mist that is supposed to simulate cigarette smoke, but doesn't violate smoking bans. Health risks are minimal, according to e-cigarette proponents, and each cartridge lasts roughly as long as 20 cigarettes.
What's Blu's pitch?
It's hoping to make "the Smart Pack the Foursquare check-in for the nicotine-addicted consumer," says Austin Carr in Fast Company. Smoking used to be a social activity, says company founder Jason Healy, but since "smokers are becoming lepers," increasingly forced outdoors, e-cigs are replacing their tobacco-based cousins as ice-breakers. The Smart Pack just takes that to the next level, Healy says.
So, the "social networking" aspect is just the opportunity to find fellow smokers?
No, the Smart Pack's radio-equipped sensor chips can also store your contact information for wireless sharing with another Smart Pack owner, as well as let you know when you pass by a store that sells Blu refill cartridges. Blu says upcoming versions will sync with your smartphone or PC, plus social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, with apps that log who you smoked with and monitor how much you inhaled, optionally relaying that data to your doctor.
Is there a market for this?
Well, social networking is hot for a reason: Forrester Research says that 105 million Americans already have at least two gadgets that connect with one another, and 37 million have five or more. Plus, says Matt Kiebus in Death + Taxes, the only group with a "greater sense of embarrassed unity" than today's smokers are today's trying-to-quit smokers, a growing subset of which use e-cigs. That sounds like a ripe demographic for social-networking. I guess so, says Adrian Chen in Gawker, "if your idea of a great time is chilling outside the 7-11 with weird goth teenagers, Eastern European clubbers, and Katherine Heigl."
So, what are you supposed to do when your Blu pack starts flashing?
I guess you could walk up to your fellow e-smoker and say, "Hi, so, er... you also spent $80 on a pack of battery-powered smokes?" says Sharif Sakr in Engadget. Or maybe "the two of you can high-five each other and exchange contact information" stored in your cigarette packs, suggests Doug Aamoth in TIME. You're missing the potential, says Blu founder Healy. "In a dating sense, your Pack is laying the groundwork for you. It's almost like a little wing man, from a guy's perspective. You don't have to go up to a girl with a cheesy pick-up line."