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SXSW Interactive 2015: Future Perfected, part 1

2015 March 24
by Henry Stokes

sxsw-interactive-logo I recently attended the 2015  South-by-Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference, and perhaps the biggest take-away I got from the 5 days worth of informative panels and sessions was a focus on making the long-desired (previously pipe-) dreams of the future become a reality sooner rather than later.

When I’ve attended in the past, there seemed to be more of an emphasis on the present: What was the newest, most exciting thing happening right now?  Which trendy app with the most buzz can I download to my smartphone and get in on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing?  New social media tools such as Twitter were first launched here, after all.  But this year, I noticed SXSWi had its eyes less on what is in our hands now and more on what is just out of our reach. It’s become the world’s best think-tank for discussing, planning, and preparing for the future that we’ve all been pining for since our youth – one filled with robots, flying / self-driving cars, and virtual reality.

It’s a future that’s right around the corner in fact – and libraries will need to be ready.

Smartphone Shmartphone.

I heard more than once that we have entered the “post-smartphone era” – a strange thing to hear since smartphones are more popular than ever. But for the forward-thinkers at SXSWi, they are mere objects in our hands that have to be lugged around everywhere – limited (and limiting) personal devices that have little integration into our life.  Instead, there’s a desire to have everything around us be smart – not just our phones, and to have them be woven seamlessly into our day-to-day existence. The way to achieve this is to make them wearable.  Wearable Technology is going to be the next big step beyond the smartphone, and the large number of sessions discussing the topic at SXSWi is a testament to that fact.  The conference itself fell just a week after Apple made its big announcement revealing their new Apple Watch.

Beyond wearability, there’s also a desire to have the objects in our lives be responsive to our needs (that’s where the “smart” comes in to play). Nicknamed the “Internet of Things”, this is the idea that the world we inhabit will be more fully interconnected. For example, a smart home might know to turn the lights on when you enter a room, or the refrigerator will alert you that your milk is expired. The gentleman in front of me in line for our conference badges was actually working on making a smart gas tank for the home – one that could alert you if there was a dangerous leak.  Your things will know they’re broken and will tell you so.  And they will know you personally – your habits and preferences – so they can respond predictively to what you want them to do.

So how does that work?

Sensors, Sensors Everywhere.

It’s all about sensors, which will be built into everything. And with huge amounts of data now capable of being stored in the Cloud and transmitted via broadband, there will be a whole world of interconnected data from multiple sources swirling all around us.  Numerous sessions at SXSWi set about discussing the implications of “Big Data”.

To illustrate what this might look like, here are two areas of our lives that could be dramatically affected by Big Data and the Internet of Things…

1)      Emergency response

Radar_speed_sign_-_close-up_-_under_limitHere’s an early, proto-version of the smart object: your friendly neighborhood speed radar sign. These receive data from the sensor in the road or camera and then provide you, the driver, immediate feedback on you and your fellow drivers’ current speeds. And it works – use of these signs cuts down  speeding dramatically.  In one SXSWi session I attended, the idea was proposed: what if you made these signs even smarter? What if it collected data from all the cars, took in data about current weather and traffic patterns, and provided you a recommended speed based on the immediate situation?

Have you heard of Shotspotter? These already exist in some neighborhoods: microphones placed in high crime areas can recognize gunshots within 10 feet and immediately alert police so they can investigate.
For the future, imagine the roads themselves telling pedestrians that a crime event is occurring nearby and to steer clear, with prominent impromptu road signage automatically generated to direct traffic. The responders themselves could have smart glasses that use facial recognition software to identify individuals, and have personal tracking set up on their person. Too stressed to handle the event? A supervisor can read the signs and pull the officer from the situation. How about crowdsourcing emergency assistance? The people in your neighborhood with CPR skills could be alerted immediately if their services are needed near their location. Actually, this one already exists. Check out the app PulsePoint.

2)      Genealogy

1A big topic of interest for library patrons since time immemorial, I predict it’s about to become even bigger with Big Data.  Crowdsourcing and Internet collaboration has allowed more people to figure out their ancestry and connect to each than ever before.  It’s predicted that in twenty years, we will have put together one single giant family tree, with every human being on it.  Imagine if you could look at a stranger on the street and immediately be alerted that they are your fourth cousin, twice removed.  This could definitely get children more excited about history (Albert Einstein is actually Cousin Albert) and might even (fingers crossed) improve human relations the world over – hey, we’re all part of the same family, and the data coming in proves it!


…to be continued.

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