WIRED NextFest Wrap-up

WIRED NextFest Banner at the Los Angeles Convention Center

Image Caption: WIRED NextFest Banner at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The Fourth Annual WIRED NextFest in Los Angeles, California, USA this past weekend offered a glimpse of our technological future with a variety of themed pavilions exploring the future of exploration, entertainment, security, education, design, robotics, green technologies, communication, play, health, and transportation.

WIRED NextFest is hosted by a different city every year, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined WIRED Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, event sponsor Hitachi’s Chief Executive for North America Tadahiko Ishigaki, and teacher and astronaut Barbara Morgan to open the event around 10:00 AM on Thursday, September 13, 2007. The event began a day early for the media and 9,000 4th through 12th graders. Scores of school children were on hand for the opening ceremony, which featured a jet-pack flyover and the Kiyomori Samurai Robot from tmsuk. Mayor Villaraigosa said it was a day to focus on education by providing “a window, if you will, into the future.” He said that “Technology is an opportunity for us to go into space, to find cures for diseases, and an opportunity for us to change the world.”

Future of Robotics Pavilion

The opening ceremony was followed by the Google Lunar X PRIZE announcement and tours of the pavilions. A variety of robots were on display at the Future of Robotics pavilion. Xi’An Chaoren Sculpture Research Institute was present with company founder Zou Ren Ti and his look-alike android. The android is nearly indistinguishable from human because of realistic looking skin and motions that include blinking and other facial movements.

 Zou Ren Ti Robot

Image Caption: Zou Ren Ti Android Robot.

Hanson Robotics was another company present showing off their robots, including “Revolutionary Robotic Friend” Zeno and other more human-looking robots. Zeno is a 43 cm (17-inch) tall, 6 pound toy expected to be released sometime in the next few years. The robot is being developed to recognize faces, show emotions, and carry on conversations. His skin is made of a polymer that can easily be moved via motors create realistic facial expressions. A camera behind one eye and a microphone will eventually feed inputs into what company representatives described as a “learning AI”. The robots on hand were not yet enabled with AI but did demonstrate scripted facial expressions and face-recognition capabilities. Hanson Robotics plans to use animation software to develop Zeno’s capabilities and train the learning AI.

Image Caption: Zeno, a “RoboKind” robot from Hanson Robotics.

Earlier robots on display by Hanson Robotics included representative robots from their “HumanKind” line of products, including Albert Einstein

Image Caption: HumanKind robots Albert Einstein and friend, from Hanson Robotics.

Future of Exploration Pavilion

A simple all-terrain rover was a favorite with students and technology bloggers for the simply reason that people could lay down and become the terrain for the rover to drive over. Capable of climbing gently over objects twice the size of its wheels, the rover demonstrated technology that is being used to explore other planets while being of particular interest to kids.

Future of Design Pavilion

A highlight of the design pavilion was a polymer from d3o Lab. The gooey material d3o is easily molded but hardens instantly upon impact to absorb much of the energy. Used as a shock absorber, the material has found its way into clothing for Olympics athletes, snowboarders, mountain bikers, motorcyclists, and others. While not intended to stop bullets, d3o could be used with bullet-proof materials to absorb some of the residual energy that can still cause damage.

Future of Health Pavilion

Researchers from Wake Forest University and the University of Michigan were on hand to show their progress in developing artificial organs and regenerated body parts.

Graduate student Luda Khait from the University of Michigan Artificial Heart Laboratory explained that one of the goals of their research is to create tissues for transplant into heart attack victims in hopes of repairing damaged heart muscle. They hope to demonstrate that externally grown cells and tissues will go where needed when implanted into patients. Right now the technology is being developed using rat models. They have been able to use cells from rats on a special gel to create networks of cells that beat, a desired outcome of cardiotissue engineering. The differentiated cells used are taken from the hearts of three to four year old rats.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Wake Forest University Institute for Regenerative Medicine have successfully grown pig heart valves, a milestone toward a future where tissues and organs can be grown in bioreactors for patients. One of the difficulties in engineering organs is their fragile nature. A valve, for example, will readily withstand the continuous opening and closing motion of its action in the heart. A valve created outside the body, however, needs to be strengthened to handle this task. Therefore, technology that mimics the heart beat can be used to “train” the grown valve prior to implantation.

On display was an inkjet printer modified to print cells in a medium instead of ink. 2-D tissues can be “printed” in this way, but 3-D organs are the holy grail in regenerative medicine. These 3-D organs will have nutrient and oxygen requirements even before implantation, but researchers believe that the rapid pace of innovation in the field will lead to significant breakthroughs within the next five to ten years.

Traffic and Long Lines

Organizers expected to match last year’s 47,000 attendees over four days. On Friday, September 14, 2007 with the event open to the public, a line of people quickly stretched around the South Hall venue amidst heavy automobile traffic. Local media coverage and global Internet coverage, including many technology blogs, were extensive.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet. His first published poem, "Roadside Freak Show," arrives on August 21, 2017 in Impossible Archetype.  His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).