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Remix Begins at the Breakfast Table

by Daniel H. Steinberg
03/16/2005

Danny Hillis, co-chairman and CTO of Applied Minds, Inc, told the opening day audience of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference that the remix theme often begins at the breakfast table. For him, it had begun experimenting with combinations of oatmeal, Rice Crispies, and Froot Loops. Remixing, at its core, is this combination of artistic design and problem solving. It's taking products that are fine on their own and considering the possibilities if you don't use them according to the pictures on the side of the box.

Applied Minds was Hillis' answer to what you should do if you aren't having enough fun at Disney. In his new company, Hillis and his partner Bran Ferron mix technologies, design, and science. Their business model is to create version 1.0 of new products and to avoid having to create version 2. They partner with other companies and build the first versions of a wide variety of products. Currently, they have forty projects from physical objects to entirely software ventures.

Hillis showed pictures of the model shops and videos of some of the robots they are working on. He showed a still of the mechanism behind a walking dinosaur created for Disney. That project required mechanics, electronics, and an element of show to get it to work. He also showed small-scale models that solved various problems. For instance, some work for NASA required a moving capsule that could stay flat but could also move sideways nicely. The first approach was to create a six-legged model because that ensured stability. A later approach used four legs. When investigating what happens with a large number of degrees of freedom, they built a snake that can move in many different ways. Although it wouldn't seem as if there is a huge market for snakes, Applied Minds sees it as a great inspection arm for NASA.

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Ferron has modded his car by adding every legal receiver system and band so that he can pick up signals from satellites, infrared, and any other imaginable source. From inside the car, you can inflate and deflate the tires. This may seem impractical, but these type of mods serve as bait to get real companies to pay money. In addition, they have licensed a toy version of this vehicle to Tonka. Other inventions are more fun than practical. They have toys that can fit together in sections. For example you can combine a ray gun, helicopter, and car with a single battery pack and remote control which can be used to move all of the parts. They have licensed this to a toy company, and that is the end of the Applied Minds involvement. The downside is that whether or not the toy makes it to the market is in the control of the company that licensed it.

Although the robotics projects make compelling demos, Hillis described work they are doing with Cedar Sinai. They take a drop of blood from a patient, break it up into proteins, and put it into a new kind of mass spectometer that has a signature for every protein. Some cancer treatments are succesful with 5% of the population, but it is often hard to describe and identify who should be in this population. If you can find the chemical signature of what made a cancer treatment work, you may better be able to screen people for whom a given treatment is more likely to work. This project required biology, physics, chemistry, and a lot of computation.

We have a whole generation who thinks of solitaire as being a game played on the computer. They have no connection to an ordinary deck of playing cards. For many, maps are something that people tend to interact with at a computer terminal. But Hillis remembers the feeling and the emotional connection to a paper map you fold out and manipulate. Moreover, he has strong memories of a dream for a physically manipulable, infinitely large map.

Hillis showed a video of him demonstrating an implementation of his childhood dream at a recent conference for map makers. The map appears on a large tabletop touch screen. He and other users are shown rotating a globe and deciding where to zoom in. They can move around the map by grabbing it and moving it. He also demonstrates moving his hand over the map to swipe in different views of the same location. As an example, he used this creation to compare two views of the recent Greek Olympic site taken at different times.

The map makers responded emotionally to this demonstration. Hillis reported that although most of them spend their days in front of a computer screen working on maps, they all had been drawn to the profession by their relationship with the paper models. Together, the hardware and software had combined with the work of design scientists to emotionally reach the end users. He showed the ETech audience a video of the next version of the map. In this next generation model, the map surface deforms in three dimensions to represent the topography of the region. The hills will appear to rise out of the plane and valleys will be sunken. You can physically touch this deformed map and feel the shape of the terrain.

How do people exchange information on the internet? Hillis said that traditionally there have been two centers of activity around email and web publishing. He argued that as people built on these two seeds, they started taking over much larger categories but that there are still things left out. He thinks that this missing piece makes up the "metaweb" which consists of stuff that is centered around the sharing and rendering of this public database.

Danny Hillis' presentation actually concluded with a story about him told by the next speaker, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos. Bezos recalled Hillis giving a speech in which he used the term global consciousness. What, wondered Bezos, is meant by this term. Hillis answered that it's easy--global consciousness is that thing responsible for deciding that pots containing decaffeinated coffee should be orange.

Daniel H. Steinberg is the editor for the new series of Mac Developer titles for the Pragmatic Programmers. He writes feature articles for Apple's ADC web site and is a regular contributor to Mac Devcenter. He has presented at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference, MacWorld, MacHack and other Mac developer conferences.


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