Speakers explain Virtual Reality at TechFestNW

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland native and venture capitalist Anarghya Vardhana gives a talk called, Pioneering the Tech Frontier.

TechFestNW is designed to give insight into current trends in technology, with a decidedly Portland flavor.

The mood is all cooperation and kombucha, but themes were virtual reality and how it might change the world — and how big data might save the world.

Here are some of the highlights of Day 1, Monday, April 25.

Virtual reality future

Movie producer Lucas Foster started things off by describing how deeply virtual reality has already penetrated the world of pro and college sports. Foster started the Warp Group of companies and is the co-founder of HeadcaseVR.

Foster’s two rules are don’t make people sick (VR can give viewers motion sickness, women more so than men) and don’t bore them.

Cheap sensors and rolling shutters can make people barf.

“If you watch action cam footage on YouTube or LittleStar for 15 minutes, I guarantee you won’t do it again. Putting a GoPro on a helmet is a sure fire way to make people sick.”

“The goal is to make you feel you are there,” he said. Moving away from the rectangular paradigm, where you are served up an image of something happening at a distance, with VR the viewer feels immersed, like you are in the bubble.

The first-person singular experience is difficult to pull off. If the camera is too high, you feel like a ghost. If it’s too low, you feel like a midget.

He said the University of Michigan has a VR tour of the campus. You can visit the law library but it’s really aimed at making people excited about their college football team — players, jocks and fans.

The Al Glick Field House will have players training in motion sensor jerseys, with cameras and haptic sensors in their jerseys. Student athletes may only train 22 hours a week but they have to watch hundreds of hours of game film, which he calls “soul killing.” Now at least they can watch it POV-style and learn more about the game.

As well as broadcasting games he says a commercial application could be “LeBron selling you shoes. Direct to you. A first-person interaction.”

Asked why VR works, he said it’s because immersive, walk-through experiences (such as visiting the Coliseum in Rome) make memories that are vivid and enduring, in a way looking at a flat movie screen can’t.

Most of the applications are in gaming now. “You’re going to see Madden Football in full VR soon,” he promised.

His producing CV includes hit movies such as “Crimson Tide,” “Dangerous Minds,” “The Mask of Zorro” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”

Giving hope to poets over the jocks, he dismissed the VR company Striver because it was formed by a football coach and a player. “They’re not exactly genius storytellers.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Andy Hickl of Vulcan tells the audience how big data can help stop the poaching of elephants.

Home again

Nest is the Google-owned thermostat that learns your moves and figures out when you are not home to save on heating bills. Aubrey Thelen oversees product management for developer experience and tools for development on the Nest API (application programming interface). Basically making it easier for people who want to develop apps for the Nest family of products.

These include a smoke alarm and a webcam. The great strength is that they talk to each other out of the box. The smoke detector can turn off the furnace and trigger the camera to send images to the homeowner’s phone.

One of Thelen’s a-ha moments came when her smoke alarm went off while she was on vacation. She had to send a friend and a locksmith around to check. It cost her $250 and four hours of stress.

Controlling a slew of IOT (Internet of Things) gadgets for your phone is not the future. They should be smart and unobtrusive. “They shouldn’t need charging, they should learn from your life so you spend more time living life than staring at screens. There are locks that have changeable schedules and passwords (say when to let the dog sitter in). Whirpool has a washer that can choose to work when electricity is cheap.

She was asked what happens when people don’t want to upgrade their big appliances to make them fit into the Nest ecosystem, but didn’t really answer the question. The assumption is they will buy more stuff. And the next big thing? “Window shades.”

She did promise that although Google and Nest are both owned by Alphabet, the personal data gathered by your Nest products will not be shared with Google.

“We’re keeping that data. It’s not shared, the business interests are not conflicting.”


Earth day again

On a panel called “The Internet of the Earth, leverage software and sensors to save the planet,” conservation technologists Ted Schmitt, Matthew McKown and Jake Wall showed how all the sensors in the world can’t save endangered species if we can’t crunch their data quickly enough.

McKown, CEO of Conservation Metrics, talked about the United Nations’ millennium development goals. He said humans are doing well on development (90 percent of kids now go to school, diseases such as HIV, TB and malaria are in retreat), but badly on sustainability — CO2 and nitrates are on the rise, one third of fish stocks are over fished, and many species are going extinct.

“What we can learn from our successes is the relentless pursuit of data-driven decisions works ... Poverty can be counted but species can’t. Animals have camouflage.”

His firm does affordable, scalable measurement to calculate population outcomes and trajectories. They put cameras and microphones into he jungle. “The IOT can move into the wild.”

Jake Wall of Save the Elephants told an affecting tale of Kulling, a strong female elephant in Kenya with three calves. Kulling had starred in “The Secret life of Elephants.” She was tagged with a big radio collar. On March 10 her movements became erratic and she headed to the lake outside her reserve. The speed algorithm picked up her movements. She then headed back to her calves, then left them. A vet caught up with her, and found she had been shot four times. She was treated but died on March 14.

He suggested a gunshot censor on the collar might have helped. Or maybe drones. Or a heart rate censor.

Jake Wall said that after spending much energy applying for science grants, their best stream of income is the Internet sale of T-shirts with elephants on them.

McKown finished by saying the task is to present the elephant killing story to the public “In a way that isn’t depressing and doesn’t turn people off. We need some PR and some data artists.”

Wall added that he has lost eight collared elephants and a friend to poaching. “A helicopter pilot who was shot down by poachers in Tanzania.”



Chip Conley ran the first rock and roll hotel in San Francisco, and many more boutique hotels after that, some of which he is still involved in. Thinking he had retired, he agreed to mentor 15 hours a week at Airbnb. He jokes that they thought he meant 15 hours a day.

The 55-year-old told the most amusing stories of the day of being mixed in with millennials at the home rental company. He was both intern and mentor.

“I don’t have a problem being around young people, but I didn’t understand the technology. “

He didn’t know the difference between Airbnb and and never pretended to. He reported to a guy 21 years younger than him, or as he puts it, “three touchdowns younger.”

He has three lessons:

1. Be very, very curious. “I was naive when it came to tech, I had a beginners mind.” He dared to ask why it was so hard to book a place to stay; so many steps. They changed it. There are 70,000 homes in Paris on Airbnb. He asked how could he get to see just the 12 that suited him. (Pro tip: intern publicly, mentor privately. Don’t point out every time someone says something emotionally stupid.

2. Iphony. He can read a person’s face as well as they can read their phone, because he has experience. “These are smart people, smart at digital, but not necessarily emotionally savvy. Those who find success in leadership are good at emotional intelligence.”

3. It’s not just know how, but know who. Conley is well-read and knows lots of people “There are things Google search can never get to, that nuance.”

His young boss wanted to know why he was talking to everyone, but in the end realized Conley had become the nerve center for the company.

He takes credit for the fact that Airbnb has gone from thinking of itself as a tech company to a hospitality company, in just three years. And that it is changing what it sells from “stays” to “experiences.”

One more thing: “I’ll live 10 years longer than my parents, and in digital society, power is moving 10 years younger, if you look at the average age of tech company CEOs. So I have 20 extra years of obsolescence, unless we Boomers get curious and use our emotional savvy to help others.”


Marcelina Alvarez believes that IOT has gotten lost in the weeds, but Portland could revive it and be at its epicenter.

The designer’s slides showed how “the future” has gone from GE’s dynamic 1955 Kitchen of the Future, to Wall-E’s chubby people watching screens while they drink from sippy cups.

While there will be 6.4 billion Internet-connected devices by the end of this year and 20.8 billion by 2020, a lot of them are just colored light bulbs and crock pots. “They took they simplest kitchen appliance in the world and made it complicated. Check status: yep, still cooking!”

Portland could be a hub of IOT development because it has certain things going for it.

“We’re good at apparel, semiconductors, we love food, we’re good at healthcare, and we enjoy the great outdoors.”

No other city has this overlap. He is excited to see the Southeast innovation quadrant connect to PSU, OHSU, the Schnitzer campus and the central east side around OMSI, and proposes the Portland Modern Manufacturing Collective can help that happen.

New York New York

Kathleen Warner works in economic development in New York City.

She said in 2009 the mayor wanted to revive the city by encouraging dynamic neighborhoods and 21st Century jobs. This is certainly working well on Roosevelt Island, where the Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island Campus Project is moving forward. Imagine the South Waterfront — only bigger.

New York is also interested in encouraging IOT companies. And other things. “We stole shamelessly from Portland,” she said, showing a slide about the Brooklyn Queens Connector, a $1.7 billion streetcar project.

Andy Hickl of Vulcan (Paul Allen’s investment arm) also showed how elephants are still being poached, and 10 percent of the world’s sharks are killed by humans, mainly for shark fin soup to be served at weddings.

We need to crunch the data about such animals. When asked about drones being used to track elephants and a possible Skynet scenario, as in Terminator) he said a cascade of local judgments wouldn’t cause this to happen.

“I’m more worried about deployments that reduce the training to use them,” he said.

He pointed out that farmers in developing countries have cell phones but can’t afford to connect them, often using them just as MP3 players.

“The next step is to let them use them as Internet devices,” he said, “Which would require a cut in phone charges.”

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