Well. It’s been a really interesting first day at Thinking Digital 2011 – a huge variety of great speakers talking about all kinds of interesting topics. We’ve spent the evening reminiscing about who we liked and going “Ooh, I’d forgotten about him” or “Yeah, that was great too!” because there were so many good speakers that it was hard to remember them all!
(All images taken using Instagram on my iPhone!)
Mega-post after the jump…
Conrad Wolfram – Wolfram Alpha
There was some great stuff from Conrad Wolfram (of Wolfram Alpha fame) showing off the “knowledge engine” that made headlines a while back. It’s a search engine that you can feed intelligent queries instead of Google’s ‘dumb’ searches, so you can say “Leeds v Manchester” and it’ll show you a comparison of the places’ statistics.
I remember trying it back in the day and thinking that it was a good idea whose time hadn’t quite arrived; I’m still not really sure it’s there yet, but watching a demo of it being used properly and the technology that drives it was fascinating.
There’s also a big project going on in the background, called Mathematica, in an attempt to create a natural language interface that will let you do a huge range of tasks that usually need programming skills to create. Wolfram demonstrated a single line of code that pulled an image of Abraham Lincoln off the web then created a slider that allowed the user to blur the image by varying amounts.
This was interesting, but then I’ve used code libraries like Caurina’s Tweener that let you do amazing things with one line of code before; I’ll be more impressed when it can do the same thing but with natural language, and that’s the really tough nut to crack here.
Stephen Batiche – Microsoft – Magic Window
There was a great presentation from Stephen Batiche from Microsoft, stuffed full of excellent future-gazing and technological wizardy. In super-short: 3D displays with cameras woven into the screen that can sense your movements in 3D space while directing distinct images precisely into each of your eyes, for multiple users, while they move around the room.
It’s not exactly ready to roll off the production lines into your front room yet, but Stephen showed a concept video that they’d created for a ‘Magic Window’ (that let you communicate with people through a screen as if you were in the same room, with an added layer of augmented reality) then went on to talk about the various constituent technologies that were in development.
There was the relatively familiar Kinect and Surface gear, but the stuff that stole the show was the display technology that used LEDs and refractive lenses to direct unique images at each of your eyes, creating a 3D image without any kind of glasses or ultra-precise distance or viewing angle limitations. This not only tracked the position of your head, so you could move around the room and keep viewing the image, but the precision of the system meant that multiple people could look at the same screen and see completely different things. The projection of light is so precise that anyone not ‘targeted’ would just see a blank screen!
Nancy Duarte – That Resonates With Me
Nancy Duarte talked about rhetoric, rhythms and story-telling in public speaking. She spoke about how the classical rhetorical devices of rising and falling rhythm, repetition, metaphor and Aristotelian story structure could be applied to much public speaking, from presentations to pitches. Stories are an important method for remembering things, from the memory-improving tactics I try every now and then (when I remember) to the verbal histories present in cultures throughout the world, so why not harness the power of story-telling to make your public speaking more persuasive and memorable?
While I’m not entirely convinced by her claim to have discovered a brand-new magic formula for successful public speaking it was definitely an interesting talk, and it’s nice to hear someone talking about the more poetic, rhetorical elements of speaking rather than the same old mechanical, jargon-filled approach trotted out by Apprentice candidates the world over.
Ewan McIntosh – The SNP’s Election-Winning Digital Strategy
There was a surprisingly interesting talk from Ewan McIntosh about the SNP’s digital strategy in the run-up to the recent election. It didn’t sound like it was going to be the most exciting of half-hours, but there was good deal of thought-provoking stuff. He spoke about how they ran a rigorous social media campaign to back up the traditional door-to-door, billboard, TV ad material.
It looks like they had an experienced hand co-ordinating a tight, efficient campaign, which was impressive in itself, but they also looked at how they could use more recent trends like friendly design-led information visualisation to communicate with their audience more effectively. When he compared traditional political literature with the clean, simple, easy-to-understand and effective stuff they’d produced we all wondered why it had taken so long for it to catch on.
One of the trends throughout the day was the tension between people who wanted to get as much information as possible out there and available for the public and others who saw the need for a layer of interpretation between the two. An early speaker was talking about collecting biometric data – wearing devices that measure heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, distance travelled – and sharing it openly; people would be the owners of their own data and could self-diagnose using the internet while shopping around for doctors when needed.
I think that the OpenGov project has shown that mountains of data on their own are not actually that useful for most people, and that just dumping piles and piles of unsorted data is not an effective way to communicate. The genius of doctors and other trained medical staff is that they interpret the data for you, bringing their knowledge to bear on the numbers to tell you that yes, you have a cholesterol problem or that no, that pain in your chest does not mean you’re dying of lung cancer.
And this matters just as much in politics as it does in medicine. Ewan’s talk showed how effective it can be to digest and represent political data in formats that make sense to people – intelligent visualisations, not the usual reams of tables and dry prose produced by government departments.
So that’s today, mostly. I’ll be writing more tomorrow (or whenever I get some free time!).