SXSW Recap: the Amazing, The Innovative, the Missing

Aaron M. Cohen's picture

Question (to me): What was the most amazing session you saw at SXSW this year?
I only managed to catch two of the four keynote presentations this year, but both of them were huge highlights for me and many other attendees at SXSW 2012.

Saturday’s keynote featured cyborg anthropologist and Geoloqi co-founder Amber Case. Cyborg anthropology puts forth the notion that humans have already merged with the machines just by using them—that we are already cyborgs, in other words. "The minute you look at a screen, you are in a symbiotic relationship" with digital technology, Case told the audience. As a result, she said, "we’re all technologically superhumans"—at least until our devices break or the batteries are drained, she said.

Case believes that mobile devices will eventually function as remote controls for reality. The next step, according to her, will be "calm technology" involving trigger-based interactions, wherein your actions in and of themselves become buttons that activate invisible interfaces. The idea is that people won’t need to look down at tiny screens all the time. The best technology is invisible, she said. It gets out of your way and lets you live your life.

Inventor, futurist, and bestselling author Ray Kurzweil, Sunday’s keynote speaker, created a lot of buzz with his presentation. Echoing Amber Case’s speech, he told the crowd that smart phone users have augmented intelligence already—and he added that it doesn’t really make a difference if this form of intelligence is in your pocket or your body. During a question-and-answer session with TIME correspondent Lev Grossman, the discussion veered from indefinite life extension to the concept of "strong" artificial intelligence to education reform and a number of other fascinating topics.

Question: What was the product demonstration or new start up that people are going to be talking about next year?

A lot of chatter at SXSW revolved around the sudden success of Pinterest, which has recently started to take off in a big way. (It went on to win Breakout Digital Trend at the SXSW Interactive Awards.) The location-sharing app Highlight managed to generate a lot of buzz as well.

Meanwhile, some of the top candidates vying to be the next disruptive game-changers were on display during Accelerator, the competition at the heart of SXSW’s Startup Village. For those interested in learning about the most promising startups that people will be talking about next year, this was the place to be. The competition is fierce: Out of hundreds of entries, eight finalists are selected for each of seven categories to present their products in front of a panel of judges and a live audience. The judges vote on the top three in each category to compete again the next day in the second and final round.

One of the top three in the Innovative Web Technologies category was TrapIt, which launched last fall. Trapit utilizes SRI’s CALO (Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes) technology—the same DARPA-funded project that produced Apple’s Siri—to offer personalized web search. During his presentation, Gary Griffiths, CEO and co-founder, summed up TrapIt’s potential by asking, "What if there was a technology that allowed content that was important to find you?" Interestingly, they’ve already made it possible to integrate their "traps" with Pinterest’s "pinboards."

Bootstrapped startup Viztu went on to take top honors in the same category. Viztu has designed a tool called hypr3D that creates unique photorealistic 3-D content from users’ photos or videos. According to co-founder Ash Martin, these models are instantly printable—provided you have access to a 3-D printer, of course. (Rest assured, the company plans to offer on-demand 3-D printing services.) The technology effectively turns a mobile phone into a 3-D copy machine in your pocket, Martin said during his presentation. The principle is similar to that used in video games, whereby high-resolution files are placed over small geometry files. One question that the judges had was how detailed and accurate such reproductions would be. Another perhaps trickier question had to do with intellectual property issues. "It could be a Pandora’s box, we don’t know," Martin said in response to the query about potential IP infringement. "Right now, we’re just hoping that people like it."

Although identity protection software OneID didn’t make it to the final three, it was, in my opinion, one of the most impressive of the top eight innovative web technologies. OneID aims to render usernames and passwords obsolete and replace them with a more secure solution. It also aims to make Web transactions faster and more convenient for consumers. Founder and CEO Steve Kirsch, a self-described serial entrepreneur, believes that he has created an elegant, user-centric solution to digital identification theft, malware, and phishing attacks. With OneID, a user’s identity is stored solely on their devices and can only be used with their consent. It eliminates the need for what he calls “shared secrets” (personal information saved on other sites). Cryptographic algorithms further ensures that personal information will remain confidential, and users can secure their devices from any other device, should any of them happen to fall into the wrong hands.

Question: What was the thing you didn't see but wish you had (or speculate about the big breakthrough that people will debut at the next SXSW)?

For every one panel, party, or meetup you attend, there are many, many others that you’re missing, and at a certain point, you have to make your peace with that. There is a surplus of choices at any given hour, from early in the morning to late at night. That said, I never managed to make my way to Google Village, but I wish I had. I also somehow dropped the ball on going to hear Stephen Wolfram of Wolfram/Alpha’s presentation "Computation and Its Impact on the Future" (I’m glad that WFS blogger Chad Davis made it to that). Paul Lamere of The Echo Nest’s presentation, "Data Mining Music," which explored the ways that data mining and data visualization can be used to discover and recommend music, among other things, was another talk I wish I could have made it to. And there are many others I could mention as well.

A handful of other highlights:

1. During his Future15 talk Brain As Interface: The Future of Bio-Computing, innovation consultant and futurist Lee Shupp asked the audience, “How many of you would do a brain implant right now, were one available?” Around 15-20% of the attendees, who numbered somewhere between 75 and 100, raised their hands. He went on to say that much of the research on brain-computer interfaces is taking place in the video gaming, military, and medical fields.

2. During Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, X Prize Foundation founder and chairman Peter Diamandis spoke of the need to get out of the scarcity mindset, not only with regard to energy and resources but also to less tangible resources such as education and health care, which he advocated should be available to all.

3. Carnegie Mellon assistant professor of computer science and robotics Adrien Treuille explained the logic behind crowdsourcing the entire scientific method via gaming during his presentation Crowdsourcing Science. According to Treuille, games engage people, they convey information in a fun and understandable way, and they effectively harness human learning abilities that computers aren’t yet capable of. What’s more, he said, by playing the game, people are more or less working for free (they’re being rewarded with game points). If that seems too exploitative, there is also an empowering aspect as well: He added that such games can also encourage young people to enter the scientific profession.

Treuille is responsible for several such games, including Foldit, wherein players attempt to fold amino acids into proteins, and a similar RNA nanoenginering game called EteRNA. In the latter, players also vote each week on which designs they think will be most successful. Afterwards, Stanford University researchers synthesize the top vote-getters.