If you want to see the seeds of the future, check out what people with spiky hair and multicolored eyeglasses are doing.
At least, that seems the lesson to be learned at the O'Reilly Emerging Technology conference, held in San Diego earlier this month. The undercurrent here is that exceptions might be the next norm. "The essence of ETech is our idea that you often see the seeds of the future in places where people are having fun with technology," says Timothy O'Reilly, the founder of ETech, as well as other technology shindigs, and the publishing house that carries his name. So, no shoes? No problem.
It all might seem a bit silly except for the fact that many of today's big Web trends have appeared first at past ETechs. The seeds of the Web 2.0 movement germinated at ETech, and site Flickr in 2004 debuted how people were using the site to share photos. Flickr is now owned by Yahoo!. "New markets often start with enthusiasts rather than entrepreneurs," says O'Reilly.
This year's ETech didn't disappoint. A few trends that stand out: Technologists are invading our bodies and our environment. They're also pioneering new ways of seeing and interpreting lots of complex data. There's no shortage of creative ways to use increasingly cheap computing power.
Eric Rodenbeck (who sported a striped tie and natty hat, plus facial hair) is aiming to make mapping a richer, more explorative experience. His San Francisco company, Stamen, has developed technology that maps thousands of data points--an ultimate version of Google Maps. The Flash-based tool in one example showed a map of London, and with the touch of a sliding scale you see areas of the city where housing is a certain price and commute times are a specific length.
Rodenbeck did a project using crime data from the Oakland, Calif., police department. Citizens used the map to track where crimes rose and fell, and when. Then they pressured the police to staff the crime-heavy areas more. "Search gets you what you're looking for," says Rodenbeck. "But exploration lets you find out what's interesting, or [what] might merit further analysis."
Some of the more far-out observations came from folks who are looking at new ways technology might change our view of the human body. Daniel Marcus, who directs the Neuroinformatics Research Group at Washington University in St. Louis, believes data sharing holds clues to tackling the toughest mental illnesses. "We're moving away for the old model, where a radiologist puts up a scan, lights it up, and tries to figure out what's wrong," says Marcus.
His project, called Brainscape, is aiming to be a mega repository for brain scans. "If we have mental maps for 2,000 people, we get a sense of what 'normal' looks like, and then we can use that to spot what isn't normal," says Marcus. His appearance at ETech was, in part, a plea to the developers in the group to create the software programs tapping the data in Brainscape.
Quinn Norton, who became famous in tech circles when she implanted a magnet in her ring finger more than two years ago, hoping to acquire a "sixth sense," also ruminated on the brain. "We might soon be able to use neurology to predict abnormal behavior. That brings up the question of interception--if we can catch autism early, should we fix it?"
This is a crowd that embraces all things open-source. Peter Semmelhack, founder of an outfit call Bug Labs, wants to take open-source even farther--into hardware. He cites an "innovation trap" in hardware, which, unlike software, still has heavy startup costs. "Today's devices must be made for millions of people," he says. "The world of atoms is different than the world of bits."
But an open-source approach to hardware might decrease that difference. Bug Labs has various devices that carry out specific tasks, such as taking photos or videos, or serving as a keyboard. Developers can snap these together and write and share software on top. "You can build a gadget in a couple of seconds," says Semmelhack.
Gina Trapani was ETech's motivational speaker. She spoke about personal productivity in an "overclocked workday" to a room packed to the doors. "You're a person with a hyperactive brain. You react to things immediately as they come to you. But you need to learn how to clear your head," she told the crowd.
Most probably didn't notice. Laptops glowed down every aisle. Some were coding, others keeping tabs on the election, or just geek-gossiping.
Whatever they were doing, their brains were cranking full-tilt.