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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

TED Day 2: Augmented Reality, Pivot, and Mosquito-zapping Lasers

The technologies presented spanned the ridiculous and the sublime.

  • February 12, 2010

Yesterday, the second day of TED10, again offered attendees a bewildering but enriching intellectual diet. The technologies presented, especially, spanned the ridiculous and the sublime.

The sublime derived from Microsoft’s LiveLabs (fast becoming the fount of some of the most innovative work out of Microsoft). Blaise Agüera y Arcas, the architect of Bing Maps, demoed a new feature of Bing Maps, called “Streetside Photos,” that cool-ly combines the conventional street photographs offered by Bing, crowd-sourced images from Flickr, real-time video, and the 3-D modeling of Photosynth to create a truly immersive, 3-D, augmented reality of Seattle and San Francisco. (We wrote about Streetside Photos here.) Agüera y Arcas flew down from space into Seattle, wandered the streets of the city, entered a fish market, and showed us his friends from LiveLabs cavorting with crabs. (A bad TED joke: “Now we know that Microsoft researchers have crabs.”) Finally, he gazed up into the night sky to look at the surface of moon and explore the constellations. It was interesting to see Photosynth’s image-mapping technologies make their way into Bing Maps. Agüera y Arcas had demoed Photosynth at TED in 2007, and wowed the conference - but it was hard to imagine how the technology, no matter how lovely, would find real applications. Now we know.

Also sublime was a presentation by Gary Flake, the brilliant founder and director of LiveLabs. (Brilliant but modest: his Web page is “Flakenstein.net,” and he does, in fact, bear a passing resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster.) Flake showed Pivot, a technology he said “simply wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.” Microsoft describes Pivot somewhat deadeningly, thus:

“Pivot is an experimental technology that allows people to visualize data and then sort, organize and categorize it dynamically. The result is that correlations, exceptions and trends become immediately apparent in ways they can’t when information is stuck in rows and columns.”

But what Flake showed was supremely beautiful. He called up tiles of every issue ever published of Sports Illustrated and searched its stories in novel, highly visual ways. Even more strikingly, he visualized the 500 most-popular pages of Wikipedia, and drew from its stories ideas and connections that would not have been readily apparent otherwise. (You can see Pivot here.)

The ridiculous technology was presented by Nathan Myhrvold, who had the engineers at Intellectual Ventures, his invention incubator, develop a system that would eliminate malarial mosquitoes by zapping the insects out of the air with lasers. (Honestly! You can download the explanation from Intellectual Ventures here.) Lest the TEDsters think the idea of defeating malaria with lasers was merely theoretical, Myhrvold then demoed the technology onstage: it was hard to see, but little green lights were, apparently, killing insects.

Creating all this apparently took months of the processing time of Intellectual Ventures’s supercomputer. Even Myhrvold described the solution as “what we call a pinky-kissing idea” (a nod, presumably, to Dr. Evil). The TED audience, who love Myhrvold and who have a very high tolerance for impractically high-minded projects, were nonplussed. I thought: Nathan made too much money during his time as Microsoft’s CTO.

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