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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Fairmont Blow-Out

By Gary Singh

I CAN'T THINK of any better reason to lurk in the Imperial Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose than to listen to a keynote address titled "Jackhammers, Polymers and Diamonds: New Applications in Explosives." Given by Dr. Christa Hockensmith, the speech will be one of 10 highlighting ETech, the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, taking place March 9–12 at the Fairmont.

O'Reilly Media are the publishers of those iconic "animal books" for software developers, and ETech is O'Reilly's flagship conference, where pie-in-the-sky ideas actually lead to real-word implementations, the definitive high-tech summit where alpha geeks, fringe technologists, academics, garage robotocists, city planners and forward-thinking business leaders all congregate and discuss innovative ideas that will shape the technological landscape down the road. Also, ETech is known for being a powwow where high-tech artists and outlaws often predict the future more accurately than any of the business strategists: "ETech gathers together the world's most interesting people to bring to light the important and disruptive innovations that we see on the horizon, rather than the ones that have already arrived. [It] homes in on what's going to be making a difference not this year, or maybe even next year, but around the corner as the market digests the next wave of hacker-led surprises."

Amen. If you're an artist who wants to implement the next wave of RFID for your installation or you're simply a project manager who wants to stay ahead of the curve in your industry, ETech is the bizarre bazaar you need to infiltrate. Hockensmith herself is the department head of the Chemistry Research and Development Laboratories at the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC) at New Mexico Tech. EMRTC has more than 40 years' experience developing, testing and working with explosives, and Hockensmith says that for this keynote she will look at many of EMRTC's research projects.

The theme of ETech 2009 is "Living Reinvented: The Tech of Abundance and Constraints," and here is just a teaser of what the high-level hoedown offers this time around:

* A class on LilyPad Electronic Fashion, taking you through the process of building an interactive garment that incorporates touch sensors, light and sound.

* A talk on whether Open Source Hardware (OSH) will be good for business or not.

* A report on Project Ravenswood, where Sun Labs researchers are working with USGS scientists to collect sensor data from the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration effort.

* Nick Bilton from The New York Times R&D Labs discussing research on using real-time analytics, device detection and granular user interaction to help make the consumption of news more engaging and relevant, based on the "3 screen" experience—web, mobile and living room.

* A session titled "Electricity 2.0: Applying the Lessons of the Web to Our Energy Networks."

* How mass-sharing of mobile phones in India can provide behavioral insights into the use of mobile phones in emerging market contexts.

Annalee Newitz, author, editor, ex-Metro columnist and former head honcho at Bad Subjects Magazine in the '90s, serves on ETech's program committee and says that this time around she's looking forward to both Hockensmith's talk about explosives as well as Liz Henry's presentation about do-it-yourself technology for people in wheelchairs. "A couple of years ago at ETech, I learned how to build a marshmallow gun out of PVC pipes, how to use Yahoo! Pipes to filter my RSS feeds, how to reprogram my Roomba, how the experts define 'social software,' and later danced to mashups with people who work on image recognition at Google," she told me. "ETech is the kind of place where you get to play around and socialize while learning important stuff about what other folks are doing in the tech community."

The Fairmont claims that it "combines technological innovation with timeless elegance." Perfect. I'll see you in the Imperial Ballroom.

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