21 December 15 -

Future Assembly: the new kid on the block.

Future Assembly is the newest ‘tech festival’ on the block. Being the first year of the event, I went in with no expectations as to what I was about to experience. I first heard about the event by chance at the most recent Microsoft Hackathon Event.

James Bonner, Director and Technical Director from Opaque Media, pitched the event as ‘the tech event for everyone’. And to be honest, this description was right on the mark. The 12th and 13th of November were a frenzy of tech-heads, designers, futurists, strategists, engineers, exhibitors, entrepre-nerds (as I like to call them), hackers, speakers, uni-students and the intrigued public. Held at the Royal Melbourne Racecourse Square Pavilion, the event was an explosion of chatter, creativity and connection-making.

I am usually skeptical of any event with the word ‘future’ in the title.  Over the years, I’ve been to a number of these types of conferences with mixed success. The speakers have a difficult job ahead of them. Firstly, they are faced with the task of striking a balance between keeping information relevant, while discussing ideas that may still be in the abstract. There is the possibility for speakers to go ‘macro’ with their content i.e. focusing on the far, far future, and in doing so forgetting to align with the practical and tangible. These people have clearly never read a Gartner report and witnessed the masters at work. On the flip side, others sometimes go too micro, focusing solely on the projects they have been working on. This often leads to a little bit of an ‘egofest’.

But I was pleasantly surprised with Future Assembly. By focusing on the theme of a ‘connected world’ the organisers were able to curate the conference and ensure that all speakers were relevant and engaging.

Over the two day event, I was part of discussions ranging from virtual reality, the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence; to crowdsourcing, virtual currencies and crowdfunding. The speaker schedule was complemented by an exhibitor hall, showcasing a great mix of both hardware and software innovations. All of these focused on pushing boundaries through bleeding-edge technology and inventive approaches.

And now for the wrap up. If you attended, I hope this article can help you re-live the two magical days. I would be keen to hear from anyone that attended. Please post your thoughts, feedback, and comments below.

For those that were unfortunately unable to attend, um…what the heck were you doing? Luckily, I have curated three of the best presentations from the conference, for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

John Strentz + Coinjar.

Bitcoin

John Strentz is 16 years old and a tech genius. Yep, he is still in high school. He currently works as a front end developer and designer at Coinjar – the biggest Bitcoin provider in Australia. John is passionate about the intersection of futurism, technology and finance.

John’s captivating presentation introduced Bitcoin (‘Bitcoin for Dummies’ style) and advocated moving towards an economy based on cryptocurrencies.

Keep your eyes open – Bitcoin is coming.

John started by urging the audience to think deeply about the potential of this technology and the market it will enable. Essentially, he positioned Bitcoin as the next big innovation. Quoting Blythe Masters, CEO of Digital Asset Holders:

“You should be taking this technology as seriously as you should have been taking the development of the Internet in the early 1990s.”

What the frick is Bitcoin?

Firstly, if you are scratching your head and wondering “what is Bitcoin?”, I recommend checking out this short post which provides a great snapshot of Bitcoin’s history. In short, Bitcoin is a digital currency that is commonly referred to as cryptocurrency. Or as Amarnd Valves from Mashable says, “Bitcoin is Internet money”.

John summarised Bitcoin as, “a digital global currency that can be accessed anywhere, anytime, by anyone”. It’s a peer-to-peer currency based on bit-torrenting. This means it is open source, almost instantaneous and inexpensive to users.

Debunking the myths.

Since launching in 2008, Bitcoin has received much criticism and negative PR.

Bitcoin represents a significant change to the way that financial transactions are executed. Combine that with our existing sensitivities around the security of money, and it’s understandable that the general public is only just tentatively exploring the concept. John identified two primary anxieties:

  • Bitcoin is volatile: Many people see Bitcoin as being volatile all the time. Admittedly the value of Bitcoin is liable to change over the long term. But then, most currencies change value over time. The key thing to remember is that Bitcoin is not volatile within a short time span. For example, 10 minutes or two weeks. It’s the long game.
  • Bitcoin is only used by drug-dealers: Bitcoin has been criticised for being a platform that facilitates illegal transactions. In response to this, John said that, “If you had two people undertaking a drug deal on the street, you wouldn’t blame the street for the drug deal. So why do we blame Bitcoin?” In other words, Bitcoin is the platform, it is not necessarily responsible for a person’s illegal actions.

Money should be accessible.

The overarching mission for those working in the cryptocurrency space is to make money accessible for all types of people.

As John reasoned, “Everything else in our lives today is so accessible. Why shouldn’t money be as accessible?”

It is hard for Australians to imagine why this is so important when we have a robust and accessible banking system to depend on. The majority of us are blissfully unaware of the difficulties banking can present for people living in other countries.

If you have ever been to a developing nation then you will know exactly what John is talking about. For many people, opening a bank account in the traditional banking system is not an option. Often, the individual’s financial position and physical location serve as the biggest roadblocks.

It’s important to remember that banking accessibility and bureaucracy is not only a problem in developing nations. There is also a level of bureaucracy that occurs in the western world. In 2012 while studying at Hankamer Business School at Baylor University in Texas, I was surprised by the archaic nature of their banking system. People were still using cheques. Online dashboards didn’t exist and transaction fees were incredibly high. It was like taking a step back to the year 1997.

Moving towards global currencies and ownership.

Those in the Bitcoin community would argue that in order to make money accessible we need to rethink the idea of ownership of the transfer process. John believes that:

“Email is a protocol, it is not owned by Gmail or Outlook or any other provider. I believe money should be like email; banks should not own the protocol.”

With innovative thinkers like John working towards bringing these ideas to fruition, Bitcoin is a concept that’s sure to gain currency. Watch this space.

Rick Chen + Pozible.

Rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) in China.

As a self-proclaimed ‘entreprenerd’, I love learning from those that have successfully started their own ventures. I am a bit of a fan girl when it comes to the sharing of business experiences. I love hearing how people get an idea off the ground, continue to solve problems and, over time, grow their business. Rick Chen’s talk did not disappoint in that respect. Using his experiences with Pozible, he explained his experience of IoT and the growth of IoT in China.

There is always a backstory.

Many people don’t know that Pozible was Rick Chen’s second attempt at a technology start-up. His first venture, Wonder Art Australia, was basically eBay for artists.

Although that early initiative failed to generate sales, it did serve to act as a catalyst for founding the Australian crowdfunding platform. Then, while working on Wonder Art Australia, Rick met an artist who was frustrated that she wasn’t able to make her craft also her full time gig. And so the seed of an idea was planted.

Pozible was born.

Rick and Alan Crabbe, co-founders of Pozible, began to focus on crowdsourcing. If you are interested in learning more about the history of crowdsourcing, and the difference between crowdfunding and traditional investment funding, then I recommend reading this piece by August’s Sarah El-Atm.

Pozible continues to grow. With more than 10,300 projects in 105 different countries, they have so far raised a whopping $41 million dollars in crowdfunded money. You’d have to say the pivot has been a positive one.

Internet of Things.

Rick suggested there have been three main digital revolutions over the last 50 years, the first of which was the launch of the Internet itself. Then came the proliferation of mobile internet, which is being closely followed by the third revolution: the increased development of a range of products that are designed specifically to connect to the Internet.

He argues that IoT is going to be the next big burst of innovation that will completely change our environment over the next 5-10 years.

So, China and IoT.

Rick contends that China is the marketplace that will realise the biggest growth of connected objects in coming years. China is the number one country for smart phone adoption. This is made possible through cheap manufacturing of products and the economic prosperity the nation has witnessed in recent times.

IoT adoption is also high. I personally witnessed the frenzy that surrounds these devices. Studying Chinese language, I spent eight months living in Beijing. During my time there, I observed that the Chinese have devices for everything. My personal favourite is the array of kitchen appliances and implements. Two that come to mind: a fork that alerts you when you have eaten too much and a rice cooker you can turn on from your smart phone.

There is a real and growing market for these sorts of products in China.

China: A new hub of innovation?

Crowdsourced funding is part of making this happen.

For many years, China has been able to grow through the manufacture of cheap electrical goods. The nation is not typically known for being a hub of innovation. With the rising cost of labour, China needs to shift its focus beyond manufacture.

Rick predicts that China will become the new hub of IoT innovation and production.

“If you go to Shenzhen, you will see what I mean. For most products there is a two to three year lag time. In China, there is rapid prototyping and manufacturing. People are hacking, making and building.”

What are the barriers the Chinese face in becoming an innovation hub?

One of the greatest barriers to China fulfilling this potential is the lack of patent and copyright law in the Chinese legal system. Rick joked about entrepreneurs pitching to venture capitalists (VC) in China,

VC: What happens when the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba or Tencent) replicate your idea?
Entreprenerd: We compete!
VC: No, the answer is you die slowly.

The second difficulty lies in developing an industry standard for connectivity. To date, there is no device protocol that enables connection. And realistically speaking, people do not want to be downloading 10 apps for 10 devices. There needs to be a means of integration and cross pollination of these products and devices.

Katja Forbes + Perceptive ideas.

Sensory design

I first saw Katja Forbes speak about Your Digital Aurora earlier in the year at LinkFest. Hilarious, insightful and a bit quirky, I knew her talk would be one not to miss.

Katja describes herself as being an experience designer. Or in layman’s terms, ‘a professional stalker’. Experience design is an emerging practise that focuses on psychology and consumer behaviour. It’s another level deeper than user experience and aesthetic design. In practice, it’s about considering the micro and macro moments of customer engagement. These are the touchpoints between people and brands.

You can’t own, but you can influence.

It is through these touchpoints – the ideas, emotions, and memories – that designers can influence. Katja emphasised the point that regardless of whether you’re a designer, creative, business or brand, you can’t own these experiences. But, you can understand them and look for ways to enhance and enrich them.

By understanding these experiences we can create meaning and take action.

Ahhhha! Open the conversation to sensory design.

Katja presented on the topic of Sensory Design and explored the idea of the human body being a sensory input mechanism – one that we as designers and creatives can influence. Katja believes that contrary to common perception we have more than five senses.

“Most people think that we have five senses: hearing, touch, taste, sight and smell. In actuality, we have nine plus senses. For example, itchiness, that is a totally different sense to pain. And pain is another sense again. So is body balance, proprioception (your body parts in relation to others) hunger, thirst, time perception and magnetic field perception.”

Our bodies take in a huge amount of information, from all different inputs, all the time. Our brains take these inputs and turn them into meaning. And like our brains, as designers we need to understand these inputs and act or design accordingly.

Four types of people.

But how do you design for such an individualised experience? Katja explains that she was able to categorise people’s reactions into four personas. These are:

  • Sensors: People who are self-aware and have good interpretation skills.
  • Seekers: People who are searching to find something better, always looking for new and better experiences.
  • Avoiders: People who are likely to avoid sensory overload. They like bland food.
  • Bystanders: People who are often unaware of their senses.

Quantified self and wearables.

After taking the audience through some heavy theory in the first half of her talk, Katja left the easy listening to last. To wrap up her presentation, she discussed the idea of the ‘quantified self’. This is essentially knowledge through self-monitoring. Katja asked the question,

“Why are we so interested in ourselves? What knowledge do we gain from self-tracking?”

A huge percentage of today’s wearables are designed to measure your own individual performance. They count steps, calories, time, distance etc. Katja gave two hilarious examples, one which I couldn’t resist sharing. The Looncup is a cup for the ladies that measures your menstruation flow. I am not sure how I personally feel about this, but it does show how obsessive we have become about self-monitoring.

Katja explained that she sees the future as progressing beyond what we see today,

“Considering sensory design, I don’t think it’s about strapping a screen or a sensor to your body. I think the point we will get to is [one] where devices disappear.”

Finally.

So there you have it folks, three insightful talks on the future of a connected world from this year’s Future Assembly. If you attended the event, let me know who your favourite presenter was in the comments below.