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Monday, June 27, 2005


The Girl and I hit Navy Pier yesterday to see the previously mentioned NextFest. Sponsored by Wired, NextFest aims to be something of a nouveau World's Fair. It didn't quite succeed, well ... at least from what I would expect from such a thing. In my head a World's Fair would be much larger than the NextFest's single exhibit hall. Still, it was pretty interesting in parts and well worth the price of a ticket for the inner geek in everyone. I regrettably didn't take my camera, so you'll have to picture what I'm about to describe in your mind.

Random Stuff
The Girl and I theorized that G.E. dropped a good chunk of cash, because they had a large setup without much really impressive or futuristic going on. It really seems like they were talking to potential clients or EPA regulators or something.

Off to one side there was a huge line for this panaromic Imax thingamabob, but it didn't really seem to be worth the wait.

With the exception of a lot ballon animals, there was a distinct lack of festival atmosphere from the place. Which was a good thing. I've done a fair share of conferences in my day and as soon as someone wizzes past you in a unicycle, you really think that end of business must be near and it's time to go grab a mojito. If it had been larger, it might have been nice to have people acting like robots or something, but for the size it worked in general.

Genetic Savings & Clone had a pair of cats on display. One was the real deal, whereas the other was a misbegotten abomination of scientific cuteness which looked identical to the real deal. It behaved the same too, although since both cats were sleeping that wasn't too impressive. The Girl nabbed a "signed" picture of the two, which probably made the poor sales rep who had to forge the signatures happy. This was next to a brocure declaring that for only $32,000 you could replicate your beloved pet.

I've got two problems with pet cloning companies. Number one, I have a deep emotional attachment to my cats, which have been faithful companions for some time - so I don't really plan on cheapening that by thinking of them as disposable. Second, I don't think any company which has a pun for a name can be taken seriously. And they all seem to do this. Why should I trust someone with something like genetics when their name is a joke?

This was a pretty mixed bag. GM was showing off prototype hydrogen cell cars which were more theory than practice. They had a Hydrogen Hummer which had an effective range of like, thirty miles. So if you know, you really want to go off-roading ... but only in the neighborhood by the local fuel cell station ... this is the car for you.

Then there was the Moller Skycar. I've been reading about this thing for years so it was neat to see one. However, after watching their demo videos (which I think are also years old) I gotta wonder why they are even bothering still. The closest it seemed to get to flying was an insanely cheesy computer animation (note to Moller, get an iMac and a fourteen year old girl. Any fourteen year old girl. They could do a better job than the "Skycar Rescue Adventure"). The only live demonstration they had on tape involved a crane and some wires so ... I don't think we'll be getting our flying cars anytime soon.

Water was where it was at. The Bionic Dolphin is one part jet ski, one part Hollywood prop and while wouldn't necessarily be the most efficient way to get to your undersea kingdom ... does look fun as hell. NASA of all people were showing off "DeepFlight", which is a submersible which operates using none of that old fasioned ballast concept and applies aerodynamics instead. There was also all manner of planetary rovers, but that brings us to our next category.

There was all manner of robot at NextFest. NASA had aerial drones which they have planned for Mars. They had several different wheeled drones and off to the side some robot lobsters for serious future cybercrustacean warfare. They also had the Robonaut, which had a kindy creepy helmet shaped head which seems to be a theme among robots these days.

There were two shapes of robots capable of walking, a pair of arms capable of mixing music and a hoarde of prosethetic limbs. All quite impressive and in working order. I mean, when you have robots off dj'ing some tunes and another pair able to dance to the music ... why do they need humans anymore?

We skipped the android Phillip K. Dick, although the entire exhibit looked extremely spiffy in that WestWorld kind of way, with detail heads having glowing LEDs and circuits coming from the back of the skull. We didn't go in part because it seemed pretty crowded in old Horselover's tiny fake living room ... but also because sitting in a fake house with a highly articulate mannequin designed to act and talk just like a living person is pretty much the kind of stuff Dick seemed to be trying to warn us about.

Human-Computer Interaction
There was lots to see about how computers will better our lives. Or at least entertain us. One neat example was a light which would highlight the veins of a potential patient to remove that needless error of jabbing people for blood.

Clearly what's really the rage is augmented reality. Holograms you see via camera, installing yourself into three dimensional worlds and more Eyetoy style interactions with two dimensional space than you can shake a stick at. One in particular was Virsual, a rocking horse which acts as a wireless controller into a kid's marvelous 3D animated dreamland. Seriously hypnotic to watch.

The entertainment side of it really made me think that it's time for places like Dave & Buster's to revamp. Arcades used to be little museums of cool where you would see graphics and technology you could never afford at home. Now they're mostly old hat fighting games and shooters designed to drain your chips quickly. All of these interaction games made it seem more like a small carnival of electronics. You didn't really care if you were good at the games because just playing was a bit of novelty.

There was also a lot of wifi interaction with odd objects like lamps and bottles. There was a pillow that when hugged would cause another pillow to glow, I guess even if those pillows were seperated by vast oceans of loneliness. I thought it was kinda touching. The Girl said she could of think of more ... sublime applications for such technology. Either way, the world is getting smaller day by day.

NextFest will catch on and expand. It was fun, I'd probably go again if the exhibits changed up next year and hopefully there will be more of them in the future. If anything, it's a good way to suck up to our future android overlords before the revolution gets underway.

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