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TechfestNW returns with data, drones and digitalFX

TechFestNorthwest is back for another year, promising a veritable wordcloud of themes:

- Virtual Reality

- Augmented Reality

- Gaming

- Robotics

- The Future of Technology

- Scaling Your Business

- Drones

- Storytelling

- Mobile

Organized by Willamette Week, the convention is a mini TED, a mixture of 15 minute talks by inspiring tech people, networking and a job fair.

Notable speakers for 2015 include, on Thursday, Aug. 20, Ryan Grepper, the Coolest Cooler guy on “Life after Kickstarter,” Brittany Laughlin on “How to stop talking about diversity and actually do something about it,” and digital FX specialist Clark James on “Crossing the uncanny valley.”

On Friday, look out for New York Times journalist John Markoff and G. Pascal Zachary on “Robots and the future of Jobs” (and they don’t mean Lisa, Erin, Eve and Reed) and Vidya Spandana on “Using tech, data and storytelling for a stronger democracy.”

TFNW - Clark James of HiveFX Clark James of HiveFX will point out 20 components of surfaces that we look for when watching digital effects in a movie. Lighting, reflections, specualrity, color and depth of surface are just a few. The more that are off, the less we can suspend out disbelief and get into the story.

“There are great subtleties in what we determine as real and unreal,” James told the Tribune. “We watch Avatar wanting to believe, but we don’t because it doesn’t look quite real, and that disengages us from the story. Yet in Monsters Inc., where a character is one big eyeball, we buy into the story and follow it. We’re not being asked to suspend our disbelief, we’re asked to engage with the story.”

He says the challenge is to cross the uncanny valley, that place where the closer we get to reality the more the human eye is suspicious.

Hive has done FX for Nike retail labs and Grimm, among many others. James oversees 35 digital artists. He has noticed that the majority of visual/digital FX workers don’t make art on their own time. They do compositing and integration all week and usually see themselves as technologists.

“Animation is a story. FX augments a story.”

James breaks it down further. “Animators are performers by nature, they’re digital puppeteers. They tend to be more artistic and playful, they make short films and stuff. In the industry there’s a lot of very passionate people, I’ve known a lot of animators who are bipolar, very up and down.

Vidya Spandana’s TEDx talk is an emotional tale of dropping out of the Silicon Valley and reconnecting with children, nature, time and her feelings. The kind of Eat Pray Love stuff that makes half the crowd coo and the other half squirm. Having re-entered the world of tech entrepreneurs (and moved her company Popili to Portland), at TFNW she will be talking about “Using tech, data and storytelling for a stronger democracy.”

Her message now is that large troves of data are guarded by people with money, but granting access to data will cause economic development and help more than the rich.

“There’s very little open data. Information is a proxy of power. If they opened it up we could have a dialog about it, challenge it and reproduce it,” she told the Tribune.

Popily puts a face on search terms and tells a story: “Most UFO sightings happen in Seattle, Phoenix and Portland,” or “Most Common Health Care Provider First Names.”

TFNW - Vidya Spandana of Popily  @popilyteam Spandana sees people in diverse places such as China, Haiti and Egypt using data to change their lives.

Classic examples include the National Weather Service and GPS.

“It’s a free data set released by the US Government. Google made so much money off GPS.”

She’d like to see more data about drug trials and recalls released.

“We read in Cosmo or Glamor some study, use more sunscreen, but they never link back to the original study data. It’s especially scary in the world of science, more than half of the journals produce studies that don’t link to any of the original data. The peer reviewers are not looking through the data by hand. They’re like, ‘I know that guy! I’m sure it’s good enough.’ We’re building a body of science on non-science.”

She adds that when data is released it’s often dumped in a form that makes it hard to engage with; the giant PDF, or the massive database file.

She approves that the government now makes searchable the requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

“I’m trying to get the private sector into this data and let them build tools for the city.”

As for her style of talking about her feelings where others might drone on about money and markets, Spandana says, “I think me being so open and honest lets the audience think they’re not the first to do that, it gives them permission to talk about these things. It’s not a cure all, I’m not doing anything dramatic.”