I’ve been buzzing around like a blue-arsed fly lately. Last week I was over in Dublin for an Ajax seminar; the week before that I made a trip up to Rochdale for a workshop. Usually these trips involve an airplane at some stage of the journey and, while I don’t hate flying, the glamour of it has certainly worn off.
This week I’m in Paris for XTech 2007. I didn’t have to go anywhere near an airport or an airplane to get here. Myself, Andy, Jessica and Brian came over on the Eurostar. I know it’s not exactly a hi-tech mission impossible mode of transport any more but I’m still so thrilled to be able to get on a train in London and get off a few short hours later in Paris. The future is here and it doesn’t involve turbulence.
After a fun geek dinner on our first night, I got up bright and early to head over to the conference venue for registration. The conference proper doesn’t kick off ‘till Wednesday but it was preceded by a day of tutorials and a special ubicomp track. I went along to check this out and I found it all to be quite fascinating… though I’m not sure if I was even supposed to be there (there’s some byzantine system that explains who can get into what but I couldn’t follow it).
I caught the tail end of the first presentation which was by Dave Raggett. From the little I caught, it was stuff that would have gone way, way, way over my head. Dave then stuck around to ably steer the rest of the ubicomp talks.
Timo Arnall gave a superb presentation called Physical Hyperlinks comparing Bluetooth, SMS, RFID and barcodes. What really made this talk different was that he didn’t just talk about the technical aspects of each technology, he also examined the user experience and cultural nuances. Thought-provoking stuff.
A jetlagged Paul Hammond then told us all about location-based services and how the technology still sucks. I really like Paul’s pragmatic approach: at last year’s XTech, he pointed out the potential downsides to open data; this year, he outlined all the problems with geocoding. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. One of his insights was so blindingly obvious, it had me slapping my forehead: instead of trying to use machines to figure out where someone is, just ask them to tell you. That’s what Flickr did with their mapping interface: by dragging a photo onto a map, you’re telling the machine where you took the photo instead of the machine trying to extract geo information from your phone, camera, computer, or whatever.
Right after Paul, Matt Biddulph came on to talk about Second Life. But he didn’t stop there. He took the lessons of Second Life—quick and easy prototyping and hacking—and brought them into the real world, showing us how anyone can cheaply build real-world interactive objects. His enthusiasm is infectious and now I want to start making bluetooth-controlled toys just for the fun of it.
I skipped out the middle of the day to explore a bit of Paris with Jessica but I made sure to get back in time for Aaron Straup Cope’s talk on The Papernet: small pieces of paper loosely joined. Again, this was a very pragmatic presentation that pointed out the many advantages that a simple piece of paper has over a laptop or mobile phone. It all depends on context of course but there’s no denying the robustness and portability of plain ol’ paper. He also demoed some fun online toys that I’m going to try to find time to play with.
The day wrapped up with a talk from designer Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino. Her perspective on things—coming from product design—was invaluable. This kind of interdisciplinary cross-pollination can really help to shake things up. It was a great way to wrap up the day.
So plenty of inspirational stuff was offered up and the conference hasn’t even officially kicked off yet. Considering the subject matter, it was ironic that the WiFi is more or less non-existant at the venue. C’est la vie. Fortunately the hotel where I’m staying has a free connection. That’s where I’m blogging from right now.
I think I’d better call it a night. I need to get some beauty sleep so that I’m in a fit state to give my presentation tomorrow. If you’re at XTech and you’re curious about microformats, come along tomorrow right after lunch. À bientôt.