I just got back from Foo Camp, Tim O'Reilly's "Friends Of O'Reilly" conference.
It was an interesting event, pretty much as described, a self-organized, somewhat chaotic blend of "people who're doing interesting works in fields such as web services, data visualization and search, open source programming, computer security, hardware hacking, GPS, alternative energy, and all manner of emerging technologies" who sat down to chat, debate, "share their works-in-progress, show off the latest tech toys and hardware hacks, and tackle challenging problems together."
Most incredible was the diverse group of attendees, ranging from university professors to tech gurus to venture capitalists to goofy little startups. In addition to the various tech celebrities -- Larry Page, Caterina Fake, Paul Graham, Ray Ozzie, Kevin Rose, to name just a few -- there were even folks such as Wes Boyd, founder of MoveOn.org.
It was good to see old friends and colleagues. Amazon and ex-Amazon.com folks included Russell Dicker, Kim Rachmeler, H.B. Siegel, Shel Kaphan, Udi Manber, DeWitt Clinton, Peter Vosshall, Chris Brown, and Steve Yegge. I finally got a chance to meet Paul Kedrosky, Garrett Camp, Doug Cutting, Bradley Horowitz, Greg Stein, Marti Hearst, Om Malik, Stewart Butterfield, Matt Cutts, Nat Torkington, Artur Bergman, Luis von Ahn, and Don MacAskill face-to-face. It also was good to see Danny Sullivan, Tim O'Reilly, Peter Norvig, John Battelle, Niall Kennedy, Mez Naam, Jed Harris, and Brian Aker again.
The many talks, most of which take the form of a discussion rather than a lecture, were remarkable as well. Sadly, there were often three or four talks in the same time slot I wanted to attend -- so much to see, so little time -- but I was able to attend and enjoy many.
For example, Mez Naam gave a fun, SciFi-like talk on what happens as 3D printers become cheaper, smaller, higher quality, and widely adopted for manufacturing. In the near term, we may see some goods reduced to information -- all you need is the blueprint for what to print to make your very own iPhone -- which could cause serious disruptions in some industries and much confusion for intellectual property laws. In the much more speculative longer term, Mez asked, what might happen if people can create drugs, even pathogens, at their desktop with cheap hardware?
Researchers Marti Hearst, Martin Wattenberg, Fernanda Viegas, Jeffrey Heer talked about data visualization, focusing on demos of Many Eyes and Sense.us. The talk explored how easy data visualization and sharing tools help people collaborate and learn from data. A very cool idea was the ability not only to comment on the graphs, but also draw on the graphs and refer to other graphs, facilitating discussion and exploration. Marti Hearst also briefly discussed tag clouds, ending with the thought-provoking conclusion that tag clouds are intended not as a particularly useful method of conveying and summarizing information, but as a means of socializing among people.
Researcher Andrea Thomaz from the MIT Media Lab showed off videos of Leonardo, a robot designed with gestures that naturally appeal to and are easily interpreted by people.
Researcher Neil Halelamien from CalTech discussed how placing a rapidly fluctuating magnetic field at the back of someone's head can stimulate neurons on the surface of the brain and create some unusual (and temporary) visual effects involving replay of images just seen.
I sat in on a conversation with Stephen Hsu and several other folks working on computer security that came to the rather dismal conclusion that not only can we expect severe, large scale botnet attacks in the near future, but also we can expect a future where most computers have some low level of infection by malware (much like the human body has a continuous, low-level infection by viruses and bacteria). Some of our discussion is similar to what appeared yesterday in the NYT, "When Computers Attack", which quotes one of the Foo campers, Ross Stapleton-Gray, at one point.
There was a discussion of the book Paradox of Choice -- which argues that more choice can make it difficult to take action and that overoptimizing choices makes people unhappy -- led by H.B. Siegel and including Flickr founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield. The discussion focused mostly on personal experiences, but some interesting meta questions about the economic rationality of optimization -- cost of time for gathering information versus the cost of a (usually only moderately) sub-optimal choice -- were also raised.
Toby Segaran lead a discussion about wisdom of the crowds and hive mind that, at one point, dived into fun questions of whether hive mind communities suffer from tyranny of the majority and end up fracturing at a certain size. Digg came up several times as an example of wisdom of the crowds, tyranny of the majority, and a hive mind that might fracture.
Peter Norvig gave a great version of his talk on the advantages of big data for solving many types of machine learning problems. The machine translation examples are particularly compelling. If you want to check it out, the talk was similar, though not identical, to some of Peter's talks I linked to in an older post.
Finally, I very much enjoyed a session with Erick Wilhelm, Dennis Cramey, and Will Carter talking about location-aware gaming. The basic idea is to have the virtual game world overlap with the real world. Initially, this has taken the form of games where the real world is used for navigation -- moving in the real-world moves you in the virtual world, but the virtual world is otherwise separated from the real-world -- but there was some fun talk about how the worlds could be blended further. What I would really like to see here is a game where you are essentially someone different in the real world (e.g. a secret agent) and interact with others in the game through your device and through the real world (tasks, information drops, puzzles). It would be like the cell phone is your access into a different persona, but that persona exists both in the real and virtual world.
In all, a very interesting and unusual experience. I am still not sure how I managed to get invited, but it was great to get a chance to go.