Robots Don’t Lie. People Do.

The date of this post is a lie.

I’m actually posting it March 1. But the date of the email below is true.

So, for the sake of monthly blogging continuity and a wee bit of historical perspective, I’m back-dating to January 30.

On Jan 30, 2011, at 6:56 PM, Interactive Panels <> wrote:

Hey Steve,

Happy Sunday from SXSW-land.

Good news — we have had some space open up on the SXSW schedule on Monday, March 14. In this space, we would like to do a mini-track of robot-related panels.

I’m writing to see if we can do the “Robot Art Lessons” session that you had proposed to the PanelPicker as part of this mini-track.

If you are still available to speak at SXSW and Monday, March 14 works for your schedule, then please reply “Yes, I am in for this Robot Mini-Track.”

Or, feel free to fire away if you have questions.

Best regards,
Hugh Forrest
SXSW Interactive Festival
March 11-15, 2011

I can’t tell you how happy this invitation made me. Mainly because it enabled my colleague and long distance friend, Alan Majer (that’s one of Alan’s creations in the photo), to have a reason for journeying to Austin from his home in Vancouver and share his hard- but joyously-earned knowledge with SxSW Interactive 2011 participants about the ultimate field of digital interactivity – robotics.

I call it that “the ultimate field of digital interactivity” because it has everything – human cognition, communications, mechanical engineering, design, emotion and sensory replication, mobility, software, and on and on.

So, to my friends and acquaintances at SxSW Central, I say “thank you” for the invitation – Alan and I will be there with bells on, just a year later than we had expected. All good things come in time…

Robot Art Lessons

HandDetailIf you know me or you read my blog, then you know that: I LUV ROBOTS.

I’m not a mechanical engineer, I’m not a robot builder, I’ve never written software for EPROMS, and I probably wouldn’t know what I was looking at on a LabView screen to save my life.

But, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities of robots.

(In fact, I think I’ll save a deeper exploration of the “Why?” for this love of robots for a future post… but at its core it has more to do with a personal belief that a deeper understanding of robotics and other forms of AI or “artificial life” is in fact a deeper search for our own humanity, not unlike the perspective recently shared by Jaron Lanier in a New York Times Op-Ed piece.)

This intense interest in robotics is why I regularly follow a handful of publications and blogs on the subject.

And, when I speak of robots, I’m not just referring to the cute little Lego-toy or cuddly animal ones, like Paro.  I’m also talking about the bizarre ones, like your garden trellis gone-wild-and-suddenly-climbing-the-side-of-your-house.

And the semi-scary ones, like the severed limb of a Transformer playing catch with your cell phone in the video above.

In a way, robotics – which may seem at first glance to be a domain purely of the left-brained, hard science type – is a field where right-brained creativity has a chance to run amok. No doubt, this is among the reasons for the explosive popularity of the Maker Faire phenomenon of recent years.

It’s also a reason why the South-by-Southwest Interactive (or SXSWi) panel proposal I’m part of for 2011 is themed “Robot Art Lessons.”

The panel proposal was inspired by a year-long correspondence with my (former-nGenera) colleague, Alan Majer. Alan left nGenera before I did, to pursue his dreams, principal among them, work on multiple dimensions of robotics. You can follow his work on his GoodRobot wiki.

Earlier this year, Alan did a show of his work at Toronto-area museum. You can view a number of the pieces in the installation on Flickr.

We thought it would be fun and informative to combine Alan’s work and research with my own interest in robotics, visual arts, and the intrigue of the creative process in general – be it for business, government, products, education, whatever. And it seemed to us that SXSWi would be a premier venue with an audience open-minded enough to join us for a conversation about what you get when you “glom together” fine arts and hard science.

If you count yourself as a potential member of this audience – whether you’ll be attending SXSWi or NOT – please do Alan, me, and our to-be-named panelists a great favor and vote for “Robot Art Lessons” to be included in the Southby program for 2011.

The PanelPicker process is a critically important part of the Southby planning process and, thus, we need your VOTE. We would really, REALLY appreciate it. Thanks!

Don’t cry for me, SXSW

It’s been a couple of weeks, but I’m still smarting from the letter. Rejection is something we all have to grapple with at some point, but it’s still no fun when it’s on your home turf. Let me explain.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have spoken on panels and/or as a presenter at South-by-Southwest Interactive (written “SXSW” and spoken “Southby,” as many call it now) several times now. Interactive is part of the larger (barely contained) chaos that is the entire SXSW festival, which includes Film and Music and has been hitting Austin every Spring Break for 20 years now.

Once just a wee musical party that mostly insiders and Austin-ites knew, the strength of the SXSW idea and support of the community helped to create the juggernaut it now represents, as one of the major North American creative events for musicians, film makers, and digerati, with a global reach.

I’ve gone to all parts of the festival and experienced it every which way – as a Platinum (All Access / All Events) badge buyer to a comp’d speaker, from paying $100 cash in order to get into Morrissey’s big comeback show 3 years ago to paying $15 to see an outrageously great line-up of 6 bands over 6 hours (8pm – 2am) including a band whose singer/front-woman was Zooey Deschanel, before she was in that awful M. Night Shyamalan movie.

So, I dig SXSW, along with Hugh Forrest and the whole crew. So, when I got this e-mail a few months back after submitting my panel topic for the 2010 Interactive show on “Controlling Robots Through the Web” I was feeling pretty good. The note from the Southby team said:

This is a very cool topic… something I hope we can do more of at SXSW. I like the tight focus (the proposal doesn’t attempt to cover too much ground, which is a common issue with these proposals). I think the description and the questions are right on.”

For the record, this is what I proposed.

“Controlling robots across the web is fast approaching a mainstream moment. Soon, our iPhones could be controlling robots and biomechanical devices that will have a positive impact on agriculture, security, healthcare, and many other uses. Learn about standards, coding, design tips and techniques for websites & mobile apps, and more!”

Geek cat nip, huh?! I consider myself an honorary geek (mainly because I haven’t coded in 15 years – I don’t count minor html editing, which a man’s gotta do), and I thought it sounded cool. But, as the time came for the first panel selections to be announced last year, the SXSW team was great about communicating the evaluation process, the sequence of panels to be announced (in multiple waves), etc. – overall, lowering everyone’s expectations.

Nonetheless, when the first wave was announced and “Controlling Robots” was missing, I was a tiny bit discouraged – but not too much, because I knew that was only about the first 25% or so. Anyhow, to make a long story shorter, several more waves later, I received the following e-mail, from which I excerpt:

“…we appreciate you bearing with us on this form letter. We despise form letters as much as you do — but, sometimes they are the best way to distribute information.

The 2010 PanelPicker interface received more than 2500 submissions from new media experts from around the world. The bulk of these proposals were of an extremely high quality — and we truly wish we had room for all of these ideas. While we have expanded the total number of rooms we will be using at SXSW Interactive, physical space is still limited. Therefore we have only been able to accept about 400 total submissions. Said another way, the selection process has been extremely extremely competitive.

Unfortunately, your submission (“Controlling Robots Through the Web”) got caught in this numbers game and we regret that we are unable to accept this proposal for the 2010 event.”

Arghh! What a bummer – it would have been so fun to do. With my trusty fellow panelists, like Good Robot’s Alan Majer, we would have been the talk of the show! I had been so looking forward to pulling together much that I’ve learned the past couple of years, from exoskeleton advances to augmented reality.

But, hey, I’ll still be attending the parties and sampling the music. SXSW is the greatest two-week scene of its kind and, despite the voices saying it’s getting too big, it’s one of those experiences you really need to sample at least once. So, make sure to put it on your calendar and hope to see you there!