SXSWi Welcomes Innovators, Inventors to Austin

Seth Priebatsch speaks at SXSW 2011 Interactive Festival
Photo by: Arnold Wells
Seth Priebatsch speaks at SXSW 2011 Interactive Festival

The crew from Google's Android team was huddling late last month to put the final touches on an idea.

The annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference, which kicks off today in Austin — one of the hottest tech gatherings of the year — was fast approaching, and the group was toiling on the next phase of digital content for Android phones. The project is loosely tied to a new consumer product that will wirelessly stream music or data to other household devices.

"Disruptive innovation creates markets," says Amit Singhal, a senior vice president at Google who oversees search. He is sitting in a conference room in Mountain View, Calif., near his office, a white board in the background. He declined to talk about the music-related service, but his point was simple: If Google doesn't innovate fast enough, someone else will.

Google is pouring more than $120 million into construction projects at its Mountain View headquarters, including a lab to test the wireless streaming product.

The @home product is similar to a home-audio service Google demonstrated publicly last year. Google also is modifying a lab for the mysteriously named "Project X," which apparently involves precision optimal technology and could be part of the secretive technology projects headed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

The projects were revealed in public records reviewed by the San Jose Mercury-News.

Up the West Coast at Microsoft , Peter Lee, managing director of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., has taken the conceit of betting on the future to an extreme. He and a group of engineering buddies routinely place wagers on what is likely to be the next "wacky" scientific breakthrough.

"We place a large number of bets (on ideas)," Lee says, sketching a diagram about the costs of product development on the white board that dominates his office at Building 99, the epicenter of R&D at Microsoft. Microsoft's R&D budget, which includes product development, is $9 billion in 2012.

Google, Microsoft and scores of presumptive high-tech game changers are descending on Austin to showcase their imaginations at SXSWi, a 19-year-old conclave that helped christen Twitter, Foursquare and other start-ups.

"It is a pop-up city where ideas are revealed, shared and tested," says Steve Jang, who launched SoundTracking last year and Imeem in 2006 at SXSWi.

Innovation. Invention. Ideas. They require imagination, research, money and the right mix of talented people.

The brightest minds and deepest thinkers are at work in Silicon Valley labs and elsewhere, tinkering and plotting technology that will blow your minds.

The nation's labs, think tanks and incubators will produce spoon-dropping technology that promises to let people: live longer; rely less on gas-guzzling cars; enjoy new, mind-bending options for personal entertainment and a wealth of information; weather extreme heat and cold from their homes; vastly improve their energy efficiency; and — maybe — save Earth's environment in the process.

The idea men and women at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), Google, Intel , Apple , Facebook and elsewhere are a living testament that the USA is still a hotbed for innovation despite a paucity of engineering degrees in the U.S. (120,000 graduates a year vs. 1 million in China and India), budget cuts and a general unease in the country's ability to produce awe-inspiring projects.

The army of engineers and researchers that brought us the iPhone and Kinect are concocting products and services for SXSWi and beyond. What we can expect in the near future:

Optimal technology. In addition to "Project X," in the pipeline are Google goggles, Terminator-like eyeglasses that stream information onto the lenses in real time, and advanced search underpinned by artificial intelligence to make results more personalized.

Enhancing second-screen experience. Yahoo has parlayed its acquisition of IntoNow into an enhanced TV-viewing experience for live events and reality TV shows. During the Super Bowl, viewers could keep up with Eli Manning's passing yardage on the right side of the screen, with real-time statistics, as the game played on the left.

An iPad app let viewers of the Academy Awards vote on the best- and worst-dressed celebrities. A fact-checking feature during one recent Republican presidential debate kept candidates on their toes.

Tractor beams. Like something out of Star Trek, NASA is hoping to shoot tractor beam technology into Americans' lives in the very near future.

The U.S. space agency late last year said it has awarded a trio of scientists $100,000 to study the ability to trap and move objects using laser light. The technology could be used to gather atmospheric or planetary particles, such as molecules, cells and viruses, for analysis. NASA and the researchers say it's akin to "a vacuum using suction to collect and transport dirt to a canister or bag."

"Laser-based trapping isn't fanciful or beyond current technological know-how," head researcher Paul Stysley says. He and his team from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have identified three different approaches for transporting particles — as well as single molecules, viruses, ribonucleic acid and fully functioning cells — using the power of light.

Superbatteries. Researchers at LBL, with funding from the Department of Energy, are developing battery technology that would extend the range of electric cars to 300 miles from 50 to 100 miles, says Venkat Srinivasan, manager of the Batteries for Advanced Transportation Technologies program.

"Batteries can be 10 times better," he says, noting that advances in so-called flow technology, a rechargeable fuel cell that extends battery life, not only would enhance consumers' use of smartphones and other devices but help reduce the U.S.'s dependence on foreign oil.

Skinput devices. Microsoft is fashioning futuristic arm bands and shoulder-mounted projectors that, when ready in a few years, would let people view content from their smartphones, PCs and tablets on their arms, hands or any other surface. The finished products, which might end up embedded in eyeglasses, watches and clothing, "turn your body into the interface," says Desney Tan, a principal researcher at Microsoft.

In one demonstration, a Microsoft researcher, carrying a laptop in a bag, directs a red beam from a shoulder holster onto his hand to view the laptop's screen and content. The holster is connected to the laptop via a wire.

Another scientist taps his right arm to check e-mail, update his calendar and play games.

Microsoft researchers have also created a touch-screen that works through fabric.

Smart homes. The minds at LBL, one of 17 national laboratories, are coating windows with chemistry-created crystals that are 1/10,000th the size of human hair to control light and heat.

The electrochromic window technology would let a house in Colorado, for instance, block out cold during the winter and disperse heat in the summer.

A Golden Age of Innovation?

While the U.S. remains the world's most competitive country in spending on information and communication technologies, at $138.8 billion this year, developing nations such as China are beginning to close the gap, says R&D magazine.

Tech is getting short shrift from the cost-cutting U.S. government, too. President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget for 2013 calls for a 1.2% reduction in federal spending on information technology, to $78.9 billion, next year.

Yet, that doesn't necessarily mean innovation is dormant — far from it, says Jonathan Schwartz, the former Sun Microsystems CEO who recently started CareZone, an online service that gives people a "safe (secure) place" to organize their family health care records.

"I have a hard time believing any country is more innovative than the U.S.," he says. "It is ingrained in our culture. …There is hand-wringing over China, but billions of people online buy and communicate (because of advancements in the U.S.). That is a huge achievement."

"There are lots and lots of small pieces — apps and servers — that, when put together, have a huge impact," says John Lilly, the former Mozilla CEO who is now a venture capitalist at Greylock Partners. "There aren't a lot of … projects that cost a jillion dollars and took decades."

The Importance of Risk

With ideas, come risks.

If you hit on the right product at the right time — such as the Apple iPhone — the market is limitless. If you don't, you invite scorn and burn resources — the Apple Newton, for example. It's all about timing.

"If you want to create something new, you have to take risks," says eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who has since helped redefine philanthropy. He started the $11.7 billion e-commerce behemoth despite naysaying from those suspicious of the Internet and the concept of strangers doing business with each other.

"One thing people have a hard time with is accepting the possibility of trying something new, and then failing," Omidyar says.

Kinect and Xbox represent disruptive technologies developed within Microsoft.

"They signal an inflection point where technology understands people, not the other way around," says Alex Kipman, Kinect's creator and general manager of Xbox.

And there are levels of accomplishment.

"Facebook built a community of 845 million people. I'd call that an achievement," says Charles Moldow, a general partner at Foundation Capital. "It's not landing a man on the moon, but it is impressive."