SciTechBlog
March 16, 2010

No 'suits' allowed at SXSW

Posted: 08:07 PM ET

You see plenty of tech company founders and CEOs at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas – many of them building empires at the age of 20.

But you don’t see very many "suits."

In fact, the prototypical SXSW executive probably looks more like a hipster than a businessman – sporting jeans, some trendy t-shirt and striped sneakers.

And, to make things all the more bizarre, you might even stumble upon one of them writhing around the floor of the Hilton lobby, as I did this year at the annual tech convention.

(This video will make it all make sense).

The executive, who was fully embracing the non-square nature of SXSW, was Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley. I spotted him in a spontaneous backstroke competition across the hotel lobby floor at 2:30 in the morning.  And, no, there wasn’t a swimming pool involved.

Danny Newman of id345, an idea consulting firm, defeated Crowley in the match.  He told me I had witnessed an annual tradition, already in its fifth year.  Newman excitedly said that he remains undefeated in the contest.

He also said the backstroke-swimming execs have been kicked out of the lobby in previous years.

Not this year, though.  Perhaps Crowley and his buddies have earned enough street cred in Austin to ‘check in’ to any hotel here and do whatever they want.  Isn’t that how rock stars act?

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Filed under: Foursquare • location • SXSW • SXSW Interactive • SXSWi


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SXSW, where geeks feel like rock stars

Posted: 11:30 AM ET

South by Southwest is a BIG event. There are some 17,000 festivalgoers milling about downtown Austin’s convention center this week on their way to back-to-back-to-back conference sessions. With that many people packed in a single (albeit gigantic) building, there’s no dawdling in getting from Point A to Point B.

So when you’re presenting at one of those conference sessions, and you’re expected to be on stage at a certain time, the conference organizers don’t mess around. They give you very explicit instructions, in bold 30-ish-point font, in a special panelist envelope that you pick up with your registration badge.

This was my first panel at SXSW. It was on Sunday at 12:30, and as per the big-print instructions, I showed up in the green room exactly an hour before I was scheduled to speak. I had to walk through some black curtains and show my special “panelist” badge to get in. All of which, to be honest, made me feel kind of like I was about to be on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Except, well, yeah.

My fellow panelists – Pete Cashmore of Mashable, Randi Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jason Rzepka of MTV and Joe Kingsbury of Text 100 – and I found a table waiting for us, literally with our names on it. (Thank you, Randi, for snapping a photo!) We wiled away the next 45 minutes chatting and taking pictures until a nice fellow named Caleb in a SXSW T-shirt came to pick us up.

Caleb led us single-file down a series of outdoor staircases and dank corridors that eventually led to our panel. You know that moment in your favorite 1980s music video when the band walks slo-mo through the dark hall out to the throngs of screaming fans? It felt like that.

The panel discussion itself was fantastic – crowd-sourcing the news,  you can read the notes on Twitter by searching #crowdcontrol – but the moment I’ll etch into my memory is the slo-mo, rock-star trek to the stage.

My head knows it’s all just logistics, but my heart chooses to believe that someone behind the scenes at SXSW is trying to make all us geeks feel like stars.

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Filed under: SXSW Interactive


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March 14, 2010

Unicorns win big at SXSW Web awards

Posted: 10:56 PM ET


Online “answer engine” Wolfram Alpha and Cornify – a site that helps you paint rainbows and unicorns all over your virtual world – took top honors at the South By Southwest Web Awards on Sunday.

Wolfram Alpha, which computes the answers to users’ questions instead of merely searching for existing sites, won both the award for Technical Achievement and the Best of Show judge’s pick.

The awards were held as part of the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

All nominees were Web sites that were created or completely overhauled in 2009.

Cornify, which bills itself as “the #1 unicorn and rainbow service worldwide, providing sparkles and happiness for all,” won the People’s Choice Award, based on online votes.

Of course, being innovators in the online world didn’t spare the night’s nominees and winners from mockery by host, comedian Doug Benson.

“I was told that the speeches would be short because many of the winners have never left their basement,” Benson said.

For the record – all of the speeches were short (although, in fairness, the dozens of parties that dot the streets of Austin during SXSW had already started).

Other category winners of the awards, which are now in their 13th year:

Activism: Waterlife
Amusement: Atlas Obscura
Art: odosketch
Blog: The Vile Plutocrat
Business: theymakeapps
Classic: Mint
CSS: Legwork Studio
Community: Aardvark
Educational Resource: 1066
Experimental: BooneOakley
Film/TV: Jim Carrey
Games: Smokescreen
Mobile: Gowalla
Motion Graphics: We Choose the Moon
Music: Echo & the Bunnymen
Personal Portfolio: Clouds 365 Project
Student: D.I.E.

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Filed under: Internet • SXSW Interactive


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Advocate: Fast Internet must also be cheap

Posted: 05:11 PM ET

The National Broadband Plan, funded as part of the federal stimulus, does some good things, a citizen advocate said Sunday, but doesn’t appear to do enough to drive down high-speed Internet costs for people who can’t afford it.

The Federal Communications Commission has rolled out the highlights of its plan – which aims to bring affordable broadband access to everyone in the country – and is expected to present the full plan to Congress this week.

From the outline and advance news of the details, however, Derek Turner, the research director for the nonprofit group Free Press, says it doesn’t appear the plan takes a hard-line on cost. And he says high connection costs are the biggest roadblock to universal high-speed Internet access.

As long as a small handful of broadband providers have a lock on the market, they’ll keep prices high, said Turner, speaking Sunday at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.

“This is a market that has natural monopoly-style elements,” said Turner, noting the massive infrastructure costs of running broadband to new areas. “We’re never going to have as much competition in broadband as we do in breakfast cereal.”

While the Broadband Plan, approved by Congress early last year, focuses on improving infrastructure all over the nation, Turner said only about 5 percent of the population doesn’t have broadband because they can’t physically get it.

One strong component of the plan, he said, is a move to revamp an existing telephone bill fee people pay to help subsidized phone service for the poor and expand it to include Internet. But a $10 reduction in monthly fees, for example, won't do much good for a poor family looking at a cable, telephone and Internet bill over $100.

"That's corporate welfare and I think it's a waste of money," Turner said.

Turner presented some interesting statistics on the issue – most of them reminders of the “digital divide” in the United States.

Only 41 percent of households that earn less than $35,000 a year have broadband access, Turner said. And only half of minority households have it.

Price is a main reason the United States has slipped to 22nd in the world in broadband adoption, he said. In France a consumer can get 100-megabit-per-second broadband service for about $33 – $2 less than someone in Austin can buy 3-megabit service.

Turner said he's still confident that Congress could improve the plan before it's finalized.

"I'm actually very hopeful for some positive outcomes," he said, "because I've seen stranger things happen in Washington."

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Filed under: computers • Internet • SXSW • SXSW Interactive


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SXSW: Finding great food, based on its location

Posted: 02:15 PM ET

Location is obviously a big theme at South by Southwest Interactive this year - that emerging-technology conference that's going on this weekend in Austin, Texas. Whether you’ve elected to use Austin-based Gowalla or New York-based Foursquare, checking in and sharing useful tips with friends are the major tenets of these location-based applications.

But what if you took that concept one step further and consider a specific community?

I spoke with the co-founder of San Francisco-based Foodspotting.com about her Web site and mobile app that binds worldwide foodies together in a Foursquare-ish sort of way.

“The time was really right for something like this,” said Alexa Andrzejewski, a user-experience designer from Adaptive Path.

Andrzejewski traveled to Japan and Korea, where she discovered and developed an appetite for street food.  She wanted to inspire Americans to learn about and appreciate other foods from Asia, “aside from sushi,” she said. Plus, she wanted to help people to easily locate those dishes.

While in Asia, Andrzejewski noticed a phenomenon: passionate foodies were taking pictures of their fabulous dishes at restaurants and posting them to their social networks.  So she decided to create a location-smart food guide, à la Flickr, that would allow people to find, photograph and share specific dishes they crave.

Foodspotting launched in January, and it has since grown to 7,000 members.  The site features more than 20,000 kinds of foods worldwide.  As you would expect, the top cities are foodie havens - San Francisco, New York, and Honolulu.

“We’re kind of like the Foursquare of food,” says Andrzejewski, who launched the Foodspotting mobile app a week before SXSW.

Food spotters build their reputation whenever someone is enticed by the dishes you spot.  For example, you can earn ten points if someone ‘wants’ that pecorino crème brulee you managed to capture in some dessert habitat.  You’ll get 25 points if someone nominates or ‘noms’ your dish.

Your guilty pleasures can even pay off in the form of badges - bronze, silver, gold, platinum - earned for spotting the same dishes and food types.  Addicted to tiramisu?  Spot it 50 times and you’ll earn the platinum expert badge.

Andrzejewski says she plans to add more game-like features in the coming months.

Foodspotting also offers scavenger hunts for food enthusiasts.  I decided to attempt Foodspotting’s ‘SXSW Street Food Scavenger Hunt’ in Austin with iReport Senior Producer Lila King.

Our first taste was a heavenly pancake taco at the One Taco truck.  I’ve never been a fan of breakfast burritos or even breakfast for that matter.  But let’s just say if a pancake taco truck roamed the streets of Atlanta, I’d earn that platinum badge in no time at all.

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Filed under: Foursquare • location • social-networking sites • SXSW Interactive


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SXSW: Vote on ideas for a better digital future

Posted: 02:03 PM ET

Three people with cult followings online have been asked to choose ideas they think will change the way the Web works. And each is competing for a $50,000 prize to get that idea up and running.

It is part of Pepsi’s Refresh Project, where the company is giving away $20 million to people with great ideas during 2010.

Here are the ideas. Let us know what you think. You can chime in with comments below, and vote for your favorite idea on Twitter, as part of the Pepsi campaign.

Foursquare meets Craigslist

Adam Ostrow, editor of the technology blog Mashable.com, is supporting Brian Milner who wants to build something to help people in need connect with people who can help (Foursquare meets Craiglist).

Stories of the homeless

Digital guru Gary Vaynerchuk is the founder of Wine Library TV. He is supporting Mark Horvath who runs InvisiblePeople.TV, an organization that shares the stories of the homeless throughout the U.S.

Virtual food bank

Melissa Garcia, also known as Consumer Queen, is a prominent mommy blogger. She is supporting Sandy Jenney who plans to use the $50,000 to build a virtual food bank where people can donate food online.

The voting ends midnight on Monday. Each of these influential online personalities is encouraging their community to vote via a hash tag: #RefreshMashable, #RefreshGary, #RefreshCQ. The hashtags will be tallied and a winner will be announced on Tuesday.

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Filed under: SXSW • SXSW Interactive • SXSWi • Twitter


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SXSW: Microsoft Surface, Flavors.me, FunMail and HuddleHub

Posted: 01:23 PM ET

The South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival, which is known for being one of the preeminent events for introducing tech innovations, began this weekend in Austin, Texas. More than 100 cutting-edge interactive businesses set up shop along an exhibit hall floor here, in an attempt to attract attention from tech insiders. I braved the large crowds and product pitches to check out what some of the coolest emerging technologies.

Here are four products that most caught my eye:

Microsoft Surface:

What is it? Multi-touch technology that enables users to interact with their digital content on a tabletop surface without a keyboard or mouse.

Microsoft Surface responds to natural hand gestures and real-world objects, helping people interact with digital content in a simple and intuitive way. Think 'Minority Report' meets the CNN Magic Wall on a beautiful table setting.

During a demonstration of prototype software, a tablet reader was rested on the tabletop while magazine content was dragged over from the Surface tabletop to the users' account with a flick of the finger. Microsoft Surface is currently geared for commercial and developer use, but could be marketed for consumers in the near future. It features an open API which allows developers to build apps to work with the product.

Flavors.me:

What is it? A personal identity management Web site that allows users to combine social network profiles onto the same page for a "unified online presence."

Flavors.me provides a clean interface for curating and showcasing your Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and other feeds into a 'one-stop digital storefront.'  If you've longed for a home worth showcasing your many online wares (personal homepages, lifestreaming, splash and microsites, celebrity fan pages, commercial promotion, brand marketing and everything in between), this could be the tool for you. Flavors.me offers free basic service and a premium package ($20 annual) which includes your own web domain name.

FunMail:

What is it? For users interested in adding a little visual spice to their messages, FunMail from FunMobility is a next-generation visual messaging platform that attaches multimedia to your text, tweet or status update.

FunMail uses a learning technology that gets smarter about making insightful connections between imagery and language every time a FunMail is sent. When I typed in "Hated losing an hour of sleep this morning," for Daylight Savings, for example, the search engine found images of people lying in bed, dogs asleep on couches and one very close up shot of a toothbrush.  I chose the toothbrush.

FunMail is currently available for iPhone and Android devices as well as online.  The company hopes to offer a Blackberry version soon.  Just in time for South by Southwest Interactive the company has released FunTweet, a Web service that turns any Twitter stream into visual messages. There's also a Facebook app.

HuddleHub:

What is it? An online management tool for people who 'own' multiple fantasy sports teams.

If you're a fantasy sports geek like me, then you'll want to check out HuddleHub. The service, which just launched, promises to aggregate your player updates, provide live sports and fantasy updates via web and mobile, and - here's where it gets fun - a recommendation engine for advice on player personnel moves via algorithms.  Just imagine taking some of the guess work out of that pending blockbuster fantasy trade.

I asked the company founder if there were any assurances this tool would provide me the competitive edge to earn championship trophies in my future fantasy sports league endeavors. He said it should help, but made no guarantees.

The Web version of HuddleHub is free and available now.  HuddleHub expects to release an iPhone version in June.

What do you think of these products? Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under: Microsoft Corp. • social-networking sites • SXSW • SXSW Interactive • SXSWi • technology • Twitter


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March 12, 2010

'Awkward Family Photos' book, more awkwardness, coming

Posted: 09:29 PM ET

The first time the creators of the humor blog Awkward Family Photos heard from one of their subjects, they were prepared to get an earful.

They did, but not like they expected.

“He said, ‘If you think that’s awkward, wait until you see this” and sent an even weirder picture, said Doug Chernack, who along with partner Mike Bender launched the blog last May.

Since then, the compendium of fashion disasters, crying babies and poorly considered poses has become a viral hit, drawing more than 100,000 visitors a day. And soon, it will be a book.

At the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, Bender and Chernack announced the book is available for pre-order now and will be released May 4.

The “ultimate awkward family photo album” will include “Behind the Awkwardness” – interviews with some of the people pictured – as well as interviews with department-store portrait photographers who explain the origins of some of those ridiculous-looking poses.

About two-thirds of the photos in the book have never been shown on the Web site, according to Bender.

For the book, every single person pictured had to sign a release form, they said, including one family from Latvia who only has access to a fax machine once a month.

None of the subjects who gave their permission to be in the book asked to be paid, Bender said.

Since starting with about 10 family photographs, including some of their own, the pair of screenwriters from Los Angeles say they now get 200-300 a day from as far away as China, Russia and Brazil.

The key to getting people to share their less than glamorous moments? They say it’s their decision to avoid a mocking tone.

“We both kind of felt like we wanted to do this, but we wanted to do it in a way that had a more celebratory tone,” Bender said.

In fact, the lead image on the site Friday evening was a photo of Bender himself - kicking like a Rockette in skis with other family members.

With the book complete, Bender and Chernack said they have plans to expand their awkward online empire – but weren’t ready to give out any details.

“There is more awkwardness in the works,” Bender said. “The nice thing about awkwardness is it’s never-ending.”

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Filed under: Internet • pop culture • SXSW Interactive


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SXSW: Location, location, location

Posted: 03:04 PM ET

Location, location, location! They say it’s the three most important factors to consider when buying a home. Now perhaps it’s also the case when it comes to taking your social-networking prowess to the next level.

Chances are you’re already seeing some of your social media pals fill up your streams with "check-ins" from Austin-Bergstrom Airport in Austin, Texas. Some 45,000 people are expected to visit Austin this weekend for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, which includes a five-day tech conference.

@Beckland: Landed in Austin with a plane full of tech geeks (@ Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) w/ 79 others)

The massive pilgrimage to the Mecca of big ideas and innovations (Twitter in 2007, Foursquare in 2009) has already begun. Make way for the invasion of the laptop-toting, smartphone-packing, wireless network-armed hordes!

One of the pervasive themes for this year’s festival is location-based social networks (or ‘LBS’ for those in the know). “Checking in” hasn’t been this cool since… since… well it’s never really been cool to check in (especially when you were a teen driver and your Mother made you check in at every destination).

Services such as Foursquare, Gowalla and BrightKite allow users to “check in” at local establishments so that network friends know their whereabouts. You can use services on your mobile device to find places that have been recommended by your friends, or by strangers.

Take it from me, a self-admitted LBS-addict, it may sound creepy at first, but there are interesting benefits to these services:

I’ve used geolocation social networks to connect with friends in nearby locales. Recently a friend was eating in the same restaurant and came by to my table to say hello upon my “check in”. (Of course this could work against you if you don’t wish to be found)

Variety is the spice of life! I look to user tips and recommendations to help guide me to new menu items and restaurants all the time.

We’re still in a recession. More and more businesses are using customer-loyalty programs to offer discounts or freebies to LBS-savvy patrons.

Mayorships, badges, leaderboards and bragging rights are just plain fun.

Location-based networks like Foursquare and Gowalla are red-hot. BrightKite has been around even longer than those rising stars. Google Buzz allows for location-sharing. Twitter is currently unleashing its geolocating tools. Facebook is reportedly planning to roll out location features next month.

As the “geolocation wars” heat up and the mobile Web grows, the need to reveal to others our current whereabouts at all times seems to reverberate deeper across the social Internet with each GPS-enabled check-in.

The SXSW "land grab" is set. The battle for "Mayorships" of hundreds of Austin venues will be up for grabs this weekend – wish me luck with one or two!

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Filed under: Foursquare • SXSW Interactive


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March 10, 2010

What should we cover at South by Southwest?

Posted: 03:21 PM ET

I'm gearing up to fly out to Austin, Texas, Friday for the South by Southwest Interactive conference.

It’s my first time at South By – plus my first time in Austin, a town I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. I’ve already gotten all the prerequisite advice (pace yourself, wear comfortable shoes, remember you’re there to work, not to … well … do all the other stuff that will be going on).

I’m also trying to get my brain around the exhaustive list of panels, parties and other events. It can be pretty overwhelming – there's so much stuff going on over the course of a few days that I’ll inevitably miss some things I would have liked to see.

Of course, we’ll be hitting most, if not all, of the keynote presentations. There’s Evan Williams from Twitter and Daniel Ek, CEO of the Spotify music site that’s not yet available in the United States.

We’ll also check out the South by Southwest Web Awards and of course lots of panels. A few I’m eyeballing, if scheduling works out, are:

_ “How Sci-Fi Shapes the Internet”
_ "Can the Real-Time Web Be Realized?”
_ A few on how technology and the Web affect personal relationships
_ “Designing Games for Twitter”
_ “RIP Jeff Goldblum – Truth vs. Web B.S.”
_ “Social Games Level Up!”

And while there’s no good way to justify it as a tech reporter, I’ll probably be trying to claw my way into the “Directing the Dead” panel featuring Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and other filmmakers.

My colleague Victor Hernandez tells me he’s considering some of the same events and quite a few different ones, including “Google in China: Context and Consequences,” “Interviewing the President: How YouTube Can Do It Better” and “Hulu and Hollywood: Love on the Rocks?”

Take a look at the schedule for the festival and see if there are panels you’d like to know more about. Let us know in the comments and we may be able to check them out for you.

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Filed under: SXSW Interactive • technology


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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