ETech in the Valley

Last week saw the Silicon Valley return of ETech, the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, where programmers and philosophers pool resources with fringe technologists, CEOs, hackers, artists, marketers, urban planners, statisticians, garage software engineers and geeks from every part of the spectrum—all with the future in mind. It took place at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, and here are just a few of the things this tech nomad experienced during his traversal of the landscape.

Chris Luebkeman, director for Global Foresight and Innovation at Ove Arup & Partners, a consulting firm for all aspects of the built environment, gave a talk titled “Urban Futures,” in which he vamped on general “Drivers of Change” the firm was asked to come up with to make the urban eco-city of tomorrow a reality. Like most presentations at the conference, several catch phrases and statements from the talk immediately reverberated across the Twitter landscape, especially this one: “The future is oversold and underimagined.”

Luebkeman also showed several maps of urban planning in downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, including the years during which it had decayed into nothingness, with everyone splitting for the suburbs. “For seven to eight years it was completely abandoned,” he said with a tinge of astonishment in his voice. “Think about it. What if downtown San Jose was completely abandoned?”

I was the only one who laughed. In another statement that unintentionally highlighted San Jo, he said, “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

After more slides and diagrams, Luebkeman posed a question: “If you could cut and paste anything in and out of your community, what would it be?” With that in mind, I next attended a talk on explosives.

“You guys aren’t very colorful dressers around here,” pronounced Dr. Christa Hockensmith, a chemist from the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center in New Mexico. “Everyone’s wearing black and gray and white,” she observed from the stage.

Much of the dialogue at ETech centers on the future, and Hockensmith theorized that eventually energetic materials might drive jackhammers, nail guns, machining tools, chippers or anything currently powered by air or fluid. Even better, tiny-scale detonations could be used to implode cancerous tumors or to unclog arteries. And in a surprise bombshell announcement, Hockensmith revealed that there will be an explosives camp for high school kids this June in New Mexico, in order to prepare them for college study in energetic materials. Just the prospect of an “explosives camp” brought resounding hoots and cheers from the audience.

“Don’t laugh,” she said. “This is real. And it’s only for kids, not old people. Explosives are useful for things besides just randomly blowing stuff up. These kids, we have a lot of energy, willy-nilly, that needs to be used.”

ETech featured quite a bit of Bay Area talent as well. Aaron Koblin, a technology lead at Google’s Creative Lab in San Francisco, was director of technology for Radiohead’s Grammy-nominated cameraless House of Cards video. An over-the-top, downright insane laser rangefinder (LIDAR) similar to the one used for that project—a HDL-64E from Velodyne Acoustics in Morgan Hill—sat there in the Crystal Room at the Fairmont and scanned the audience while we watched Koblin’s presentation. The 3-D visuals were projected onto a screen on the wall to Koblin’s left. The Rolls Royce of its kind, the HDL-64E is a $75,000 monster employing 64 laser diodes to produce 1.3 million data points per second with a full 360-by-26.8-degree field of view and a 10 hertz refresh rate. Absolutely freakin’ sick.

Koblin will also collaborate with Dan Goods and Nik Hafermaas for eCloud, an artwork for the new terminal at Mineta San Jose International Airport consisting of hundreds of small square panels of electrically switchable laminated Plexiglas arranged to simulate a disperse cloud suspended from the concourse ceiling structure, with the opacities of the panels driven by data from live weather feeds.

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