"We are gods with anuses," said self-styled "espresso philosopher" Jason Silva in his SXSW interactive opening day talk.
Effectively, our minds have the godlike power to transcend reality, imagining virtually anything. And yet we are trapped in a physical vessel with all its biological and indeed scatological limitations. The rest of his talk was largely hyperbole and he's basically scared of death, but I figured he was on to something with this statement. And it’s a doozy of a way to start an article.
If we accept that innovation is imagination applied, then the internet is probably the nearest we have got to demonstrating this godlike power. Don’t roll your eyes, bear with me... we have a problem with language and perception around "the internet". I don’t just mean the web, I don’t mean cyber space that "other place" we visit when we sit down in front of our PCs, I don’t even mean just the increasingly portable version we carry 'round with us in the smartphone.
Behind all these resides the internet that networks of networks connected together by common protocols. So fundamental and near ubiquitous, we are beginning to notice it more by its absence than its presence. And we are entering a fascinating new stage.
In the words of the amazing Ping Fu, chief executive of Geomagic, "we are making the digital, real and the real, digital". This blending or augmentation is the constant behind the key themes of this year’s SXSW and we need to consider them in this context and in the context of each other or else they are in danger of sounding like the latest collection of disparate geek buzzwords.
Wearable computing is something that sounds silly. I struggle to escape the image of schoolkids in the 80s wearing casio watches with 50 pointlessly small buttons on them. But we are at a point where not just Google is about to take wearable computing mainstream with Glass, and possibly Apple with the iWatch, but where the geeks are actually contemplating how stuff makes you look. You know shit got real when geeks are thinking about fashion rather than star trek.
If you’re going to wear your tech you need a way to interact with it. This year's South By winner was undoubtedly Leap Motion – a cheap but mindblowing device that offers super accurate gesture-based human – computer interaction. Ultimately the best interface is no interface. Automatic solutions are a key element of this – a way for computers to serve us in a manner so natural that they become part of the fabric of life – like the sliding doors we take for granted at the supermarket.
This kind of seamlessness requires people and things to be able to sense each other and, ideally, to understand each other. Which neatly brings together two other themes – the mass deployment of sensors and the Internet of Things. These are profound developments too vast to capture here but to make them accessible think toasters and tigers.
Internet enabled toasters sound silly but if you share a house with someone who likes to nuke their toast then the prospect of a toaster that can sense it's me next to it and dial down the setting from 7 to 5 is a win. As for tigers, I went half way 'round the world to hear a delightful Indian-American reference Leicester Tigers rugby team – they use jerseys embedded with sensors to predict and prevent injuries.
Which brings us back to wearable computing and no interfaces, all of which brings us back to making the real, digital and the digital, real.