Zerista is preparing a multi-pronged attack on mobile social applications, targeting small social groups that can be short-term, such as a wedding reception, or longer-lasting, for example a soccer club. And it does all this by combining location, friend-finding, and event management.

Zerista’s product may seem familiar. The company provides a custom community platform (like Ning), offers check-ins à la Foursquare and handles ticketing like Eventbrite. Zerista’s staff drops these names routinely in its presentations. Zerista is targeting “mainstream smartphone users,” a broad demographic. The company offers a free-to-use, ad-supported site for communities comprising up to 250 members, running the gamut from wine clubs to kids’ soccer teams and smaller social events. Its “pro” version is more heavy-duty, aimed at large conferences, exhibitors, convention centers and the like.

One fundamental feature of the Zerista product is indoor mapping. The system can provide interactive floor maps of indoor spaces, such as convention centers or indoor sports halls, and provide users with information on booth locations or where people are—say, colleagues, or other team members between games. Maps can be zoomed in and out and provide live information should changes occur, for example a display or sales booth moving to another floor location. Zerista says it has deployed its indoor location-mapping technology to more than 100,000 users for over 30 customers, according to Zerista President John Kanarowski.

Zerista accesses location information from mobile devices. Indoor location information can be generated via radio frequency identification (RFID) or ultra-wideband radio technology (UWB) but Zerista uses Wi-Fi scanning and cell-phone tower triangulation.

“RFID and UWB are not so widely deployed as to provide generic solutions for such needs, which is why we are going with Wi-Fi, for example,” says Zerista CEO Charlie Savage. He came to Zerista from a position as a technical lead at Ubisense, a British company specializing in real-time locating systems (RTLS).

Zerista builds on location application programming interfaces provided by cell phones and mobile browsers, which use various techniques to establish location, also including GPS and IP-address matching.

Whereas location services such as Foursquare or Gowalla rely mostly on the public experience, helping people check in at public locations such as bars or restaurants, Zerista enables members of groups to check in at group-specific or private locations and activities. For example, a realtor can create custom or private maps for customers when showing open houses. This feature is currently in private testing and will roll out in June as part of Zerista’s new mobile community platform.

Kanarowski sees a bigger arena for such micro-location services.

“We enable a more nuanced sharing of location,” he said. “Besides checking in at custom locations, you can determine how you would like to share this information—within a group or pushed out to a broader social net. Given that location information is different than other types of information, additional layers of flexibility will be important to mainstream application.”

The ability to create ad-hoc social mobile networks easily is a cool idea and should appeal to a broad demographic, from runners to dog-walkers, or from amateur bowling teams to professional event organizations. It will depend on the ease and precision of the technology, Zerista’s ability to present its product in a way that is equally easy to grasp, and differentiation from products already out there. In pre-launch beta mode, Zerista has received less than $1 million from the Kickstart Seed Fund. The company expects to generate revenues from ads, selling the pro version of its system and from a cut from ticket purchases and the buying and selling of virtual and physical goods through their system.

Zerista was one of 65 companies chosen by VentureBeat to launch at the DEMO Spring 2010 in March.

[This story is part of a weekly series on location-based services, written by VentureBeat’s JP Manninen. If you have an idea for a story you would like to see in this series, drop a line at jp@venturebeat.com]

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