Friday, March 15, 2013

On SXSW: 2013 Retrospective

I've attended two SXSW's now, both as a representative of Dominion Enterprises.  Both have been eye-opening experiences, each with their own "flavor".  I'm sure this flavor is a bit different for everyone since the ingredients reflect the panels, talks, and networking one attends.  Last year I was impressed by the focus on story telling, tipping points, and DevOps.  This year it was a different perspective and one focused on two things significantly different:

Simplicity.  A Better Place.

The last ten years has bombarded us with a myriad of technology:  phones, big tablets, small tablets, apps, Android, iOS, Blackberry - you get the picture.  The choices and decisions we make between these items shapes our experience of the world around us.  It seems that the very near future is going to see a new evolution of technology and applications focused on diminishing, or at least minimizing, the disruption devices and applications present.  Like last year, I'll be digging further into each of the topics below.

So how did I get Simplicity out of SXSW?  I mean, one is surrounded by gadgets and apps and ideas while there, right?

Simplicity:  The Amazing Vanishing Interface.
This one trend is likely to be the "smart phone" of this decade.  Last decade we received a horde of new screens and operating systems to manage.  Never mind all that "smart" tech that's showing up in watches, glasses, microwaves, thermostats, dashboards and anything else that has a power source.

How can we reasonably expect everyone to keep up with three, really five common devices:  phone, tablet, desktop computer, television, and car?  Depending on your choices, you might have five completely different operating systems, set of applications, and ecosystems.

You do it by removing the interface and constructing smart controlling devices.

There really isn't a reason for your TV to be a smart device.  Your computer, tablet, and phone already are.  And they're perfectly capable of managing your TV.  They're also capable of managing your car dashboard.  Devices are going to start forming into ecosystems of open and closed groups, with dumb devices acting as satellites to your smart devices.  Things like Google Glass will plug into your phone the same way Pebble does.  All of the fitness bands and gadgets will also extend your phone's capability.

The Smart Phone is not a phone.  It's a sensor and a broadcaster.  It's an interface to AI's.

Downtown Austin with JWST model in foreground
Product designers are starting to see this and are beginning to eliminate unnecessary application interfaces.  The Nest thermometer learns your patterns so you don't have to manage it.  Sensors in car doors and in bumpers automatically open doors or lift gates for you.  This trend of seamlessly integrating robotic action into your life is going to continue at a rapid pace and your smart phone is going to be the brains that manages all of it.

AI's like Siri and Google Now are going to continue to expand and become better, eliminating bulky forms.  Start-ups are rolling out industry specific AI's (think travel, food)  and these will streamline what is today a very input-heavy experience.  Why should we always re-enter the same data over and over?  Why couldn't an agent existing on our device auto-supply data points and learn our behavior patterns?

In the end, experiences will become simpler.  We will configure the dumb devices around us through our smart device to respond to our particular set of unique needs.

Unfortunately, I suspect the car industry is going to be the last to realize and implement these ideas.

A Better Place: Big Open Thinking.
Bre Pettis launching the Maker 3D Scanner at SXSWi.
OpenSource has been a buzz word for a long time.  Emerging today is "Moonshot Thinking".  Combined, these concepts have a tremendous amount of power.  Now add to that mix Makerspaces or Hackerspaces and you have a recipe for real, tangible change.  What's more, they are already altering the world around us, bit by bit.

We're seeing the effects of big thinkers with resources in things like Google Fiber and SpaceX.  What is happening on a smaller scale and gradually infiltrating other aspects are big thinkers using OpenSource community principles to affect world-wide change.  Linux was, perhaps, the first few bars of what's a greater piece which involves the ingenuity displayed in Makerspaces around the world:  people with knowledge joining others with different knowledge and building things just for the sake of creating them.

LeVar Burton speaking at the 100 Year Starship Panel.
Education and health care are both evolving under the Open principle.  MIT, Coursera, Khan Academy, and OpenTextbooks epitomize Open learning.  PatientsLikeMe and CureTogether are the first steps in democratizing health care to groups of people.  OpenPacemaker has solved basic issues within pacemaker software that I'm sure none of us realized even existed.

 The 100 Year Starship project exemplifies this on a massive scale.

Our challenge is going to be adapting modern business practices to a world that is not closing, but opening it's doors.  No one has a true hold on any knowledge or content today.  Will we also be able to leverage the OpenSource community?  Will we also be able to Moonshot Think and stretch for big, beneficial goals?

There are strong undercurrents rippling beneath our every day lives.  They start in the depths around technological innovation and are finding their way into many industries - industries we cannot live without or succeed without.  The success of certain types of thought are being applied in new, creative ways to old problems in education and health care.  New thought is changing how people are thinking of devices and how they enrich our lives - and by extension how they change those old-world problems.

SXSW is a great place to get a tad of exposure to those currents.  And, one hopes, enough warning to keep one's head above water when those currents become a wave of change.

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