The 2014 South by Southwest Interactive conference, held this past weekend in Austin, was heavy on new technology as expected, but has also heaped attention on the issues of privacy and digital security, with appearances by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, among others. KERA’s Alan Melson, who has been blogging along with other KERA staff from Austin for Art&Seek, joined Anne Bothwell to discuss some of his takeaways from the conference.
Listen to the conversation:
Anne Bothwell: So, Alan, any new tech trends that emerged during this year’s conference?
Alan Melson: One subject that kept coming up was 3D printing, a process where machines lay down multiple thin layers of material to build things in whatever shape you need. You may have heard reports about 3D printers being used to make furniture, or even guns, but here at South by Southwest the end product was a little more fun. The makers of Oreos set it up where you could go on Twitter to suggest whatever flavor sounded good to you, and then watch the machines actually print your cookie. A lot of conference attendees tried them out, and most said they tasted just like ones you’d buy at the store. Besides the Oreos, there were well over 100 sessions discussing different aspects of 3D printing, and the general takeaway is that the technology is becoming easier and cheaper every day, and is expected to expand rapidly in the next few years for a variety of uses.
AB: What about new gadgets?
AM: There are always a slew of companies that make the trek down here to Austin, hoping they’ll be the breakout sensation of that year’s conference. It doesn’t usually happen that way, but I did come across a few pretty interesting products.
One is a device called Narrative. It’s a plastic thing you clip to your shirt with a tiny camera inside that takes a picture every 30 seconds. The goal is to capture your life as you live it, and then upload it all to your computer to help you remember where you went, what you did and who you met. Apparently it works pretty well, but it does raise questions about privacy, although its creators say it’s really no different than tools people already use like the FitBit, which measures how you exercise.
There’s also a company called LittleBits that makes pre-assembled circuit boards that do all kinds of things, and then snap together with magnets. The goal is to make it really easy to build your own electronic gadgets – something you and your kids can do at home. The company was founded several years ago by Ayah Bdeir, an MIT Media Lab graduate and TED Fellow. She spoke Monday afternoon at South by Southwest about how her product and others are part of a larger digital world that’s becoming known as the “Internet of Things.”
AB: So what is the Internet of Things, exactly?
AM: Well, that term refers to the whole ecosystem of devices that connect to the Internet in some way – your smartphone, your TV or even your thermostat . I heard quite a bit this year about making those devices easier to use, but also making them more secure. You may want to be able to use your data from those devices however you see fit, but you don’t necessarily want other people or companies to have access to that data, and industry leaders and lawmakers still haven’t figured out how to manage all those expectations.
AB: Privacy and security were big topics of discussion going into South By Southwest this year, with sessions featuring remote appearances by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Those discussions can often be serious and somewhat negative about our digital future; did you hear any other strands of conversation with a more positive outlook about technology?
AM: Sure, there were actually a lot of really great conversations about collaboration. We heard from media panelists like Bill Simmons and Nate Silver from ESPN, talking about the importance of teamwork and experimentation to create stuff that people will find interesting. There was also a fascinating session about how museums are trying to shed their stuffy image through careful use of marketing and social media, and giving visitors more input – in fact, one panelist said museums no longer have audiences – they have infinite curators. I liked that quote a lot.