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Hollywood Style

Mainstream meets mainframe of the future


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Where else could you mingle with Meg Ryan, Al Gore, Larry Page, the founder of Google, an MIT student who studies insects' feet and our technology columnist? Why at, TED, of course.

A few weeks ago I attended the TED Conference held in Long Beach, California. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, and in 1984 it was where Steve Jobs introduced the original Apple Macintosh computer.

Now in its 25th year, the content has gradually shifted from its tech roots, with an increasing emphasis on social and environmental issues, but innovation remains a major focus.

The four-day conference is an immersive and powerful experience with a series of thought-provoking talks concerning innovations and issues spanning a broad range of disciplines. Run by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, the format is structured to be "a place where you can have amazing conversations with amazing people."

The conference attracts many of the world's foremost scientists, business leaders and academics as well as a number of Hollywood stars. So between sessions, you may find yourself chatting over coffee with Larry Page (the founder of Google), Bill Gates, Al Gore or Robin Williams - no introductions needed. At the evening parties and dinners, you're likely to bump into actresses Glenn Close, Meg Ryan or Goldie Hawn, and then find yourself seated next to an eminent biologist or the science editor of the Economist.

Each day is jam-packed with about a dozen talks, as well as social gatherings allowing the attendees to mingle and chat. The presenters tend to be brilliant and exceptional. Most every talk was illuminating and intriguing, even those I expected I would have little interest in. And there were a few I found to be especially fascinating, such as the talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity and also film producer Jake Eberts showing incredible footage of undersea scenes.

Here are a few of the most interesting innovations presented this year. It's not exactly clear that all will ever reach commercialization or widespread use, but they were all neat as heck. (Full disclosure: I advise the two MIT presenters in my day job.

Meet the future

David Merrill, an MIT graduate student, presented Siftables - a new way to interact with computers. His devices are small tiles about the size of cookies that have displays on their surface. They also incorporate motion sensors, sound and can communicate. One demonstrated application was sorting photos into piles, but he also showed some interesting possibilities in educational games.

Berkeley biologist Bob Full showed how his research studying the feet of insects and lizards can allow us to mimic nature's designs, incorporating a "directional adhesive" into robotic devices that can climb walls and across ceilings. But it's not just robots - he shows a clip of a woman with this synthetic material on her hands and feet scaling the side of a building.

 

Roman Lubynsky is a technology consultant based in Boston. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he has an MS in Management of Technology from MIT.

Roman can be reached at roman@lubynsky.com

Catherine Mohr, a Stanford researcher (she's both an MD and an Ph.D. engineer) has been working on robotic surgical arms that provide the dexterity and 3D vision missing in current laparoscopic surgery. These devices are already in limited use and she showed amazing videos of heart surgery using them. Further advances promise to radically change future medicine, including the possibility that surgeons might perform complex and specialized surgeries remotely.

Remember the movie "Minority Report"? Researcher Patti Maes from MIT presented a working project that brought science fiction to life. Using hand gestures, you control a wearable computer, camera and micro-projector. She demonstrated some possible applications, such as: taking photos by using your fingers to frame a shot, getting product info from the Web while you're shopping in a store, and projecting a dial pad onto your fingers to make a phone call.

TED was a memorable experience. In a kind of weird twist, I did meet both Walt Mossberg and David Pogue, the two giants of technology reporting, but I was too awed to mention that I tried to write a somewhat similar column.

Despite the big names, I found the most valuable conversations were with the more mainstream attendees. TED posts online videos of all the talks at TED.com, so I encourage you to browse through the ones available so far from 2009, as well as the dozens from previous years. I guarantee you'll find some that knock your socks off.

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