“Remix” was the theme of this year’s O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference held in San Diego last month. The relatively small conference is the computing world’s Sundance, where new talent and many of the pioneers who had a hand in creating the personal computer and subsequent important chapters in technology history meet and mingle in the halls. They are attracted by the conference’s emphasis on do-it-yourself technology and its decidedly noncommercial vibe.
This year’s theme was meant to conjure up images of hackers (in the old-fashioned, positive meaning of the word) splicing together odd new creations out of cars, cell phones, robot toys and the wireless Internet. It reflected a trend that’s been gathering steam for some time in the consumer world, where platforms and formats are combining and recombining in dizzying, delightful and sometimes confusing profusion. There are talking billboards that can be telephoned; a dozen different ways to get phone, cable and Internet, and cell phones that can double as books, stereos, televisions and video cameras.
Most of the conference dealt not with hardware, however, but with a new form of online group collaboration inspired by the computer industry’s success with “open source” software (programs that can be used and improved by anybody). The concept is quickly leaking out of the tech world and into everyday life. Case in point: the Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that started in 2001 and now has 517,639 articles anyone can edit. There are also group-created travel guides, how-to manuals and Flickr, a photo album for the whole world to share.
Though many of these sites have been created by programmers, there is nothing to stop artists, designers, architects, trend watchers, professors, ad writers and marketers from creating their own hives of group activity. As O’Reilly participant and New York University adjunct professor Clay Shirky has pointed out, sites with shared databases like Flickr and social networking sites like Friendster could be used to predict trends and involve masses of people in product design.
Here are some highlights of the O’Reilly conference:
Amazon founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos didn’t say a word about e-commerce, but he did open with a funny anecdote about the previous presenter, Danny Hillis of research and development firm Applied Minds. Bezos recounted that the two had been once been chatting about global consciousness, and Bezos asked him to define it. “Oh, global consciousness,” said Bezos, quoting Hillis. “That’s easy. That’s the thing that decides the decaf coffee pot is orange.”
Bezos demonstrated OpenSearch, a new search tool from A9.com Inc., a subsidiary of Amazon that was founded in 2003 to improve search for e-commerce. Amazon will eventually use A9’s technology on its Web site, according to A9. A9.com lets users search several sources, including Google and Amazon’s Search Inside This Book. The site keeps a history of every search, so users can save search results. OpenSearch lets content providers publish and syndicate their search results. For example, at opensearch.a9.com, one can click on a button to see the results of a search on “what people want to do with their lives” from Web site 43 Things. Number one is “Be a better person and leave the world a better place than how how [sic] I found it.” 43 Things is a social networking site where people can list their goals and connect with other people with the same goals. Perhaps Amazon figured if Yahoo and Google could have shopping-specific search tools such as Froogle, Amazon, a shopping site, could make its own search tools. Then again, perhaps A9.com was just a logical spin-off for a company that has devised numerous innovative ways for consumers to search its own site for books and other products. “My guess is that there will be lots of Web sites that want to consume search,” said Bezos.
Tech Buzz Game
“The Tech Buzz Game is a new way to tap the collective wisdom of the Web and possibly influence the way we do business,” said Gary Flake, principal scientist and head of Yahoo Research Labs. Jointly developed by Yahoo and O’Reilly Media Inc., the book publisher and organizer of the conference, the Web-based game lets players bet (with fake money) on which technologies will be most searched in the future. Players’ guesses are compared with actual Yahoo search tallies, and players are awarded (or charged) more fake money with which to place more bets.
“It’s a research project to see whether or not [a group] can predict trends,” said Tim O’Reilly, founder and ceo of O’Reilly Media and a well-known open-source activist. The game’s Web site describes it as a tool to see if “search buzz” can be predicted by “the collective wisdom of crowds.”
“We’re just at the stage where we’re trying to map buzz results to real-world data,” continued O’Reilly, who added that his company has found it very easy to predict which books will succeed based on which search terms are popular.
The End of the DJ
BBC Radio’s tech department thought up a clever idea: user-controlled radio, where the masses become the DJ. They called it the Ten Hour Takeover, and for 10 hours on three occasions in the last two years, BBC listeners text messaged the BBC with the name of one song over their cell phones. The BBC’s computers aggregated the songs and automatically played them. Listeners could also send in comments and their pictures, which were posted on the BBC Web site along with the playlists.
Serendipity at Microsoft Labs
“Cross-discipline serendipity is getting to the point where we can store everything that ever happened to anyone,” said Rick Rashid, head of Microsoft Research. He showed the audience slides of the SenseCam, a wearable data and image recorder that automatically takes a picture when its environment changes. The device has a global positioning system and senses light, temperature and motion, so it can take clear pictures even when it’s moving.
SenseCams are being tested to support memory loss patients in Cambridge, England. “It’s the ultimate blogging tool,” said Rashid. “You could blog everything that ever happens to someone this way.” Yes, but would you want to?
A light flashed when Nokia’s Chris Heathcote and Matt D. Jones touched their cell phones together, and the two phones exchanged business cards. As the duo later explained, the phones were set up to “read” any object that has been “tagged” with information stored on magnetic chips similar to the ones used in employee ID cards.
However, there is a downside: Two strangers could bump phones in the street and unintentionally exchange information — unless, of course, the phones are set up to require a click from the owner first.
“There is a privacy issue,” admitted Heathcote. “I have tagged my world, and if I move my phone, something happens.”