Highlights from TED: Tim Berners-Lee, Pattie Maes, Jacek Utko

We’re now more than halfway through the 2009 TED Conference, the thought-provoking gathering of innovative and multidisciplinary presenters. While some of the talks — on topics like reducing environmental impact in carpet tiles and addressing the crushing pressure creative people feel — fall outside of the GigaOM realm, a few have struck me as very relevant for this audience.

1. Tim Berners-Lee

Founder of the web Tim Berners-Lee spoke of the next grassroots communication movement he wants to start: linked data. Much in the way his development of the web stemmed out of the frustrations of brilliant people working in silos, he is frustrated that the data of the world is shut apart in offline databases.

Berners-Lee wants raw data to come online so that it can be related to each other and applied together for multidisciplinary purposes, like combining genomics data and protein data to try to cure Alzheimer’s. He urged “raw data now,” and an end to “hugging your data” — i.e. keeping it private — until you can make a beautiful web site for it.

Berners-Lee said his dream is already on its way to becoming a reality, but that it will require a format for tagging data and understanding relationships between different pieces of it in order for a search to turn up something meaningful. Some current efforts are dbpedia, a project aimed at extracting structured information from Wikipedia, and OpenStreetMap, an editable map of the world. He really wants President Obama, who has promised to conduct government transparently online, to post linked data online.

2. Pattie Maes

We take in information from the world with our five senses, but by harnessing the power of the web, we could take in so much more. Pattie Maes, a professor at the MIT Media Lab, presented a remarkable project she’s working on with student Pranav Mistry that she referred to as a “sixth sense.”

The way it works is similar to a Microsoft Surface/”Minority Report” interface in that hand gestures manipulate objects and indicate commands. But instead of requiring a special surface, the system uses a webcam to interpret gestures. Right now, the system is pretty clunky, but the charm is it’s made using off-the-shelf materials — an Internet-enabled cell phone, a webcam, a mini-projector — hung on a lanyard around the user’s neck, at a cost of about $350. The user puts four markers — literally, pen marker caps — on the tips of his fingers; the system is trained to interpret the relationships between them. So, for instance, if you made them into a square by putting your thumbs and pointer fingers at 90-degree angles, the system takes a picture of what’s framed within. If you use your finger to indicate drawing a circle on your wrist, a clock face pops up with the time. You can even use your palm as a dialpad, and make a call directly from your hand. See Mistry’s video demo embedded above, hosted by Wired.com.

Maes explained to me off-stage that the project is only four months old (!), but said she and Mistry plan to make it fully functional. The gestures are all in working order, she said, but next they want to team up with an image recognition company like SnapTell to enable the system to recognize books by their covers so that, for example, Amazon recommendations can be projected right onto them, or the degree of environmental friendliness of a consumer good could be retrieved and projected right onto its packaging. That context is the “sixth sense,” Maes said. Way out-there applications could be projecting a related news video onto a newspaper, or using facial recognition on a person and projecting information about them on their shirt. That would probably look out of place anywhere but MIT, but then again it seems unlikely that people will be walking around with webcams and projectors hung around their necks and marker tips on their fingers anytime soon, either.

3. Jacek Utko

utkodesignLastly, I thought the design-oriented readers of GigaOM, as well as people interested in the future of news, might want to hear the story of Jacek Utko. Utko has made a business of redesigning newspapers in Eastern Europe. He started out his talk by making the case against newspapers: “Readers don’t want to read yesterday’s news, and advertisers follow them.” Tweaks like making news more local, or more free, or more opinionated, are only staving off inevitable death, he said.

But Utko has figured out a way for print to survive in the here and now, and that’s by making newspapers flashy and fun and cohesive. He thinks of the front page as a poster, and the full paper as a piece of music, with ups and downs that are tied together. Furthermore, during his redesign, he gets right into the workflow of the paper, figuring out how business can be integrated, rather than viewed as an afterthought.

His redesigns have not only won awards — his papers in Poland and Estonia each won best design in the world by the Society for News Design, an unheard-of feat for such small publishers — but they’ve also increased circulation significantly, as much as 100 percent for the Bulgarian paper he overhauled.

Utko’s call to arms:

“Design can change not just your product, it can change your workflow, it can change your company. We just need inspiration, vision, and determination to operate at the highest level. To be good is not enough.”

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