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TechFestNW speakers show the way to harness new technology



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang talked about distraction and how to overcome it, from digital apnia (holding your breath when you check your email) to taking a sabbath and going offline once a week.

Counting quickly to 10 takes most adults about one-and-a-half seconds. Ditto reciting the alphabet to J. So does counting A1, B2, C3 through J10 take three seconds?

Not at all. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang had the audience try, during the first talk of Day 2 of TechFestNW last week, and the results were laughable. In the audible chaos inside the Gerding Theater at the Armory, the best he heard was about 15 seconds.

His point was to show that multitasking can wreak havoc even with tasks we’ve been automatically doing since we were two years old. Driving and texting was another example of “cognitive load” gone bad.

Mass distraction

Soojung-Kim Pang’s talk was entitled Weapons of Mass Distraction: How to own your digital devices and not the other way around.

Another way that devices can own us is digital apnia. Linda Stone’s research at Microsoft found that when we check our email on our phones we tend to hold our breath, because it has triggered a fight or flight response. A hundred times a day that can add up real stress.

“We make technology part of ourselves,” Sujung-Kim Pang said. “These tools make us productive but they can also be a distraction,” as he pointed out in his 2013 book “The Distraction Addiction.” (His next book “Rest” is coming out in December. )

Netflix has calculated the exact number of seconds to leave its “up next” teaser on the screen before the next episode automatically starts playing. “The default is to keep playing,” he says. But if Netflix just made the next show play without a break, people would likely turn it off if they had more important things to do. However, 10 seconds is just the right amount of time f them to rationalize watching “just one more” show. “You can say ‘Just one more, and I’ll get up early and finish that report.”

Distraction is complicated: concert musicians, for example, have to pay attention to their instrument, the conductor, their colleagues and the audience and don’t find that stressful so much as exhilarating. Multitasking works well when one is master of ones tools.

Busy people give themselves more focused time.

There are non distracting writing tools such as the word processor OmmWriter and WriteRoom. But the big money is in Apps that capture and commodify our attention, and in return give us intermittent rewards are addictive, such as Facebook, Gmail and Twitter.

“Social apps are social in a way small children are,” he said. “They want to notify you about everything, with no regard for context.”

In Silicon Valley where he lives he has seen seniors and juniors in college produce zombie apocalypse whitelists of people who are allowed to call them (or whom they will pick up on). Such as parents, boy/girlfriend, a couple of best friends.

He has Layla’s opening bars as his white list ringtone. Everybody else gets Brian Eno,” he says, referring to the British father of ambient music. “It’s easier to make a quick decision about whether I want to be interrupted.” Another tip to buy decision-making time: leave the phone just out of arms length.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Anthony Batt (right), CEO of Wevr, which makes content for virtual reality systems, said the mediium has promise because it touches people deeply. Batt's company works with comedians and hip hop acts, and has made a simulation of an 80 foot whale passing by a boat.

Busy people are now taking weekly digital Sabbaths – disconnected days where they can be reminded of what paying full attention feels like. Allowing the mind to wander is also considered crucial to creativity or just having fresh ideas.

He quoted the Buddhists: “Pain is inevitable but suffering is a choice.” In the digital age, we will be interrupted, but “distraction is a choice. We can control how we react.”

Deloitte did a study showing that weekly meetings of senior managers could be very unproductive because subordinates have t spend too much time tweaking PowerPoints and shipping them back and forth.

The Boston Consulting Group said in a study called Sleeping with your cell phone, that it gave its staff one evening off a week where they didn’t have to respond to messages. After six months they all felt better and more productive, even the Alphas. And their clients hadn’t even noticed any lack of attention.

VR for everyone

The best speaker in terms of talking about a subject in which he is already immersed was Anthony Batt, CEO of Wevr. He is a digital media executive and entrepreneur (Katalyst, Thrash Lab, Buzznet, EMC Greenplum and Digital Threads with Craig Newmark of craigslist.org fame.)

He said that while VR has been an idea since 1968 and Ivan Sutherland’s work, and has had hyped moments, such as Jared Lanier, it is only now happening because processing power is there. However, it really needs people to quiet down the buzz for a while.

“I’d like two or three more years for VR to mature without a lot of people looking and expecting it to do something more than it can now,” he said. However, the big players are all jumping or buying their way in, because they fear missing out, the way Google did with social media.

Formats such as the Oculus Rift, which Facebook bought for $2 billion, the HTC Vive Valve Tech, and the Samsung Gear, are barely established.

“Samsung, Facebook, Google and Sony, they’re the only ones with money, and if they freak out and they’ll bail.

It’s not all rainbows and pork chops.”

Watt does not think people will spend a lot of time in VR and AR – certainly not walking down the street.

“If the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or some movie company does some special content, then yes, you’ll watch it at home,” he said.

He praised “My Mother’s Wing” by Vrse.works. It’s a short VR film where the director is embedded in a Palestinian’s home. It tells of a mother who lost two sons to Israeli shelling.

“What they need is content: people creating stories just for this medium, people coding and scripting just for this medium.”

The power is that VR feels different: it’s like a memory or a dream.

From the creators’ point of view, it’s they can see where the viewer’s eyes are pointed and get feedback on a story, like A-B testing on a website.

“We can program stories in ways that are not necessarily scripted, based on what you’re thinking and feeling.”

At Wevr they hacked together their camera rig from four GoPros which shoot a spherical image. It’s hard to light because the lights get in the way. A nice California sunset works well, as does green screening.

They made one piece, a whale simulation where the viewer “feels like a little guy on a boat” as an 80-foot whale swims by, which sold 8,000 copies in two weeks.

He has partnered with Ben Dickinson and Reggie Watts (who has been here for PICA’s TBA festival before) and let them have at it. As a director, Batt said they were confused to be not working with a traditional script, and to have to go through “previsualization.”

It’s common for people to try to scare people by having something go off behind them, because they can.

Shooting is cheap - $5,000 to $50,000 for a day.

But GoPro cameras are “flakey” and turn off for no reason. They rigged up portable four screen monitor just to know what’s being shot.

In a piece with the makers of the Walking Dead they were pleased they could get the camera right into the morgue fridge with the corpse.

“It’s aspirational voyeurism, after 30 minutes people forget how long they’ve been in there,” he said. “Presence happens when you have this dreamlike state.”

Batt was calling out for VR content talent. Tech investors aren’t very good at betting on content. “YOU might say, Game of Thrones, they got lucky. The people who made Slack, they got lucky. But they were talented too.”

Frontier Capitalist

Anarghya Vardhana is a Jesuit High graduate who is now a venture capitalist with Maveron in San Francisco. She talked about the tech frontier, that is, new trends in technology where VCs like her hope to make a boatload of money for aggressive investors.

The short list is: virtual reality, augmented reality, drones, space teach, artificial intelligence and AI systems.

Things are changing rapidly, she noted, as evidenced by the fact that her mom, who used to be a dialup and desktop kind of gal, in now addicted to her smart phone.

“It may be unacceptable in the near future for our tech not to know us intimately, say if it recommends a steakhouse to me when I’m a vegetarian,” said Vardhana.

The idea that Amazon’s Echo, the smart speaker, could take on Bohse was also unthinkable a few years ago but it’s happening.

Frontier tech is on the radar of the big players – Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Intel and Facebook. For example she said Facebook’s messenger is morphing into an AI assistant.

A VC like her looks to make seed and series A investments. With $3.2 Billion raised in frontier tech since 2014, and $2.25 Billion raised in the first half of 2016, there is money to go round. She looks for a timeline to shipping a product, and takes a close look at the founding team.

She noted that the VR community in Silicon Valley began as simple MeetUps and morphed into a conference. Those startups now need to build their VR community, work on their storytelling, that is, tell a linear story with a big vision, and say when it’s going to happen – “Is it five years or fifteen?”

“Aye you driving consumer usage, or waiting for them to come to you? What’s compelling is the former – show us your customer acquisition strategy.”

Vardhana is not a gamer, admitting she doesn’t know what the controller buttons do. She sees VR as more intuitive a controller and expects it to be big in things such as teaching the piano, with the teacher right there in the “room” or in therapy such as overcoming a fear of spiders, or in physical therapy, showing you exactly the angle to bend your knee.

Keg or culture?

Joshua Reich, the founder and CEO of online bank Simple talked about what makes corporate culture in his organization. He said people often come in and observe and think they can go away, get a keg and a ping pong table and have instant millennial-attracting work environment.

As part of being bought out by Spanish firm BBVA, Reich insisted the customer-centric online bank keep its company culture intact. And culture is about sticking with the founders’ mission and caring about employees. In Simple’s case it includes listening to them the same way they listen to their bank customers.

To keep them motivated they work in small teams of four or five to solve problems.

At Simple they have to adapt to every new release of Android and IOS, while traditional banks work on ten year tech cycles. “I know of one big bank currently updating its mainframe computers system, to make it more mainframey I guess,” he joked.

The staff are given freedom (from organizational silos) and a strong sense of shared purpose. A tip for start-ups. Early on take a couple of days off to just write down why it is you’re doing what you are doing. “It’s not a formal values and mission statement, but something to build on so it is part of your DNA.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Anthony Batt of VR company Wevr gives a short history of VR, saying it's been aorund since 1968 but needs three more years to develop compelling, popular content.

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