Space shuttles, Brain Computer Interfaces, and Robots, oh my! The Wired NextFest took place in Los Angeles this past weekend, transforming the LA Convention Center into A Worldchanger's fantasy playground. Exhibits included new technologies in all the hottest fields - from security and exploration to communication and green living. Needless to say, some of the technologies were more impressive than others but there was a nice balance between gadgets chosen for their cool factor and those with real life-improving potential. And that's the fun part, after all - imagining the possible applications text message graffiti or battery-powered rope ascenders.
Worldchanging readers will be familiar with many of the technologies displayed in The Future of Green Pavilion including Kyosemi's thin flexible solar cell, Sphelar, the Lifestraw, and Novomer's nontoxic plastic made from carbon dioxide and citrus peels.
While many of the green technologies were known to me, it was still incredibly inspiring to see them in person and to have the opportunity to meet their inventors. The Future of Green Pavilion was extremely well curated with a wide range of exhibits from the small and incredibly practical like Potenco's pull cord power generator to a fully assembled prefab home, the Archouse Project (video). The diversity of green innovations on display conveyed the ever-growing reach of the sustainability movement into all areas of our lives.
One of the most interesting projects was SmartConnect from Southern California Edison. SmartConnect is a smart metering program aimed at reducing energy consumption by allowing customers to monitor their usage and to opt in to energy-saving programs. By 2009, all Southern California Edison meters will be replaced with the new smart meters which can be remotely accessed by the utility at any time. Customers can monitor their usage and rates (peak time vs. non-peak time) online. Once the new meters are installed, customers will be able to opt in to participate in power-saving activities during peak periods. Edison will be able to contact customers (via text message, etc.) with alerts about heavy usage and through smart appliances like remote thermostats, Edison can adjust your home's power usage for you. As a Californian, I have some obvious concerns about handing control over to a power utility but the general idea behind this project is a good one. When consumers have more information, they can make better decisions. Perhaps the idea of a smart grid controlled by national and international utility regulators could be the starting point of community-controlled energy regulation systems.
Another project that caught my attention in the Green Pavilion was the Pond Scum project from Sunnol Biotechnology. Professor Pengchen Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria (bright green pond scum) that feed on carbon dioxide and produce ethanol as waste, possibly eliminating the need for expensive and time-consuming farming techniques currently necessary to produce the alternative fuel.
You can learn more about all the Future of Green projects here.
Aside from the high tech artsy stuff (The Morpho Towers were amazing!) and the inspiring green Pavilion , I was most impressed with the exhibits in The Future of Health. The University of Michigan and the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are both working on replicating functional organs in a laboratory environment. Dr. Atala's research team from Wake Forest has already successfully transplanted lab-grown bladders into young human patients and are currently working to apply this technology to more complex organs.
A company called Otto Bock specializing in prosthetics had the largest presence in the Health Pavilion. Their featured technologies included a dynamic arm elbow with strength and balance enough to mimic the real thing, prosthetic legs with microprocessors inside to help keep the motion fluid allowing the wearer to navigate even bumpy terrain in a natural fashion and prosthetic design systems to ensure the perfect fit for each patient. Presented by actual beneficiaries of the technology, Otto Block's products stole the show in the Health Pavilion. The best news: most insurance companies cover the cost of the high tech prosthetics, including Medicare and Medicaid.
And I can't neglect to mention the Brainloop project from Aksioma Institute for Contemporary Arts. For lack of better words to describe this performance, I turn to the Brainloop website:
Brainloop is an interactive performance platform that utilizes a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) system which allows a subject to operate devices merely by imagining specific motor commands. These mentally visualized commands may be seen as the rehearsal of a motor act without the overt motor output; a neural synapse occurs but the actual movement is blocked at the corticospinal level. Motor imagery such as "move left hand", "move right hand" or "move feet" become non-muscular communication and control signals that convey messages and commands to the external world. In Brainloop the performer is able - without physically moving - to investigate urban areas and rural landscapes as he globe-trots around virtual Google Earth. Through motor imagery, he selects locations, camera angles and positions and records these image sequences in a virtual world. In the second half of the performance, he plays back the sequence and uses Brainloop to compose a custom soundtrack by selecting, manipulating and re-locating audio recordings in real time into the physical space.
This work results from a multi-year collaboration between Slovenian media artists and Austrian scientists. Its author is the Slovenian media artist Janez Janša. Responsible for the BCI application is Reinhold Scherer from the BCI-Lab of the TUG. Brainloop has been awarded with the ARCO/BEEP Electronic Art Prize (category Off-ARCO) at ARCO 07, Madrid, Spain.
I spent quite a bit of time chatting with the artists, who explained to me that the technology is really still in its infancy and the process of manipulating the machine is terribly exhausting for the performer. Still, by creating a simple interface, they are able to manipulate the Google Earth application and to create complex musical performances just by thinking. It is impossible not to wonder about the potential implementations of BCI technology. The artists are huge proponents of BCI as a tool for those who are unable to communicate by traditional means such as stroke victims or people afflicted with Autism.
NextFest is Wired's vision of a new world's fair, introducing the public to innovative products and technology that are changing our world. More than just offering a glimpse into the future and giving companies a boost toward success, NextFest provides attendees with an opportunity to interact with these new technologies and their inventors before the products hit the market. The more the public can engage with the newest advancements on the horizons, the more we will be able to understand how these technologies impact our daily lives, thus empowering us to shape our own future.
Whoa! BCI! But what if the control goes the other way like those chips implanted in the brain in the movie Nightmare City 2035? What if they make me see a lie? What if they spy on my hormones & heartrate and know!