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Fun at the Wired NextFest

I attended WIRED Magazine's NextFest 2005 yesterday at Chicago's Navy Pier.  It was an interesting event with many displays of the (near) future of technology.  I had actually expected much more consumer-oriented displays, but this turned out to be much better.  Since it was primarily displays of ideas, there was not so much selling going on, as discussions and displays of interesting ideas.  I was impressed by the willingness of the booth denizens to remain outgoing.  There were several instances where I was reading a sign or looking over a gizmo when someone came up and asked if they could answer questions or show me something.

The best display was Motorola's, primarily because the people were so darned friendly and excited about their work and ideas.  They were demonstrating a bunch of almost-here ideas.  They have their seamless mobility concept that uses RFID (embedded in your phone) to let your media follow you around from home to car to office to mobile.  They had a demo of new uses for screen real estate on their mobile phones, such as a news crawl at the bottom of the screen.  Hooking that up to your corporate dashboard would be an interesting combination.  They showed their bluetooth crossing into the music and media world with stereo headphones (with microphone) and a bluetooth add-on for the iPod.  Motoglyph was more of a concept piece, but it lets you create digital graffiti that could then be saved for you and copied to your phone (or computer?) as wallpaper.

It was nice to see the Ohio State represented with the Buckeye Bullet in the entrance to the entire exhibit.  This landracer is fully battery powered and has several record speeds at the Bonneville Salt Flats.

There were clearly a number of crowd favorites, where there were long lines of people waiting to view or enter or otherwise experience something.  The first being the FogScreens installed at the entrance: video projected onto a thin layer of fog.  There were a number of music or video game gizmos that drew a lot of attention.  Among these, I was very tempted to stand in line for FPGameRunner, the treadmill-mounted video game: the faster you run, the faster your character runs.  A number of the military / robotic applications also had a game-like feel to them, such as the Full Scectrum Warrior Xbox game(?) and the live Face Detection software from the Mitsubishi Electric Research LaboratoriesLightspace demonstrated their "interactive surfaces" with a game of Floor Pong that looked like lots of fun.  It would be cool to do that to a wall in my house.  The most popular robotics exhibit was the Philip K Dick robot from Hanson Robotics.  They had set up a living room with PKD and a long line of people, waiting to sit with him.  They also did 3D face scans for people, and I should have mine soon.

The other robot displays were fun too, though a couple of the demonstrations were having technical difficulties.  iRobot had their Roomba, as well as their military robots on demonstration.  Their R-Gator is a John Deer truck that can be driven via joystick or set to follow a walking soldier (to carry supplies).  And a number of the transportation displays verged on robotics, such as the groovy Innespace dolphin submersible or the GM Hy-wire fuel cell car that is driven via joystick.  Segway had their vehicles in the "test drive" area, but it didn't look like attendees were being allowed to actually test drive.  They also had a working demo of their four-wheel "off road" Centaur that looked like a lot of fun.

The health area had more robotics in the form of prosthetic arms and legs, with the spokespeople being users of their products.  One young man had two legs and an arm, and was happily chatting with people about the incredible features of his Otto Bock legs with loads of built-in microprocessors.  Then there was Pebbles, a teleconferencing robot being used to hook up hospitalized kids with their classrooms.

Xerox was demonstrating their new color printers by taking thermal images of people and printing them on WIRED covers.  I also liked their display of By Kids For Kids (BKFK) winners for kids who are inventing things that solve their problems, like carrying your baseball bat and glove on your bicycle.  The Panoscope 360 was a big draw with images project on the interior of a walk-in hemisphere and controllable via a joystick.  I thought the Mars space suit from NASA was cool, particularly since you could step into it and pretend to be an astronaut for a second.  NASA also had a model of their Prometheus reactor / thruster system for deep space exploration.

While the primary aim of NextFest was new ideas and technology, there certainly was some salesmanship happening.  The Dyson vacuum cleaner people were pushing their latest advance.  I picked up free pressed coffee from the Senseo booths.  And the Sonos people were showing off their wireless whole-home sound system.  Drool.

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