Not all that Wired about it: Communication technology gets the short end at NextFest

Apparently robots and moonrovers are more important than wireless communication and media delivery technology. Or so it would seem after a visit to Wired‘s annual ooh-aah technology convention NextFest, going on this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

For a magazine/Web outlet designed to bring information to readers, Wired sure selected a media-light crowd of exhibitors this year. Just eight out of 162 exhibits had anything to do with communications. And really, only Yahoo’s presentation had much of interest to anyone working in online media. (The rest were cool 3D displays, cellphone activated lightshows, installation art of instant messaging, etc.)

What gives? Where were all the next-gen social media applications, the iPhonery, the streaming video delivery stuff? NextFest opted for the wow-factor of robots and lightshows and missed out on what actually changes our lives.

I had a chat with Ben Clemens, Director of the Design Innovation Team at Yahoo, who also did a stint at the online portion of the New York Times.

Ben explained that his team is working on a unique app that will visually chart Web searches in real time and map them onto a model of the globe. Playing back the data will give an insight into how searches spread and develop over geographic space and over time. I thought it would be tremendously useful for journalists following the news cycle of a story, so I asked him about the model. (Partial transcript follows the video.)

Ben Clemens: The idea is there there search burst events which are lots and lots of people looking for the same thing at the same time and we want be be able to visualize that and show what’s the geographic pattern that they are looking for.

OJR: What sort of application might this have for tracking the way people follow a news story, for example?

Right now what you’re seeing is a fairly coarse level of data, but what we’d like to get to is the point where we can actually see as a story unfolded pegging the spread of search queries in some sort of more local event. One of the data sets that we’re actually working on right now is the bridge collapse, we wanted to track on a very local basis how it was that the searches spread, because that started as a very local event and then became a national event. Right now we don’t have the fine grain of geo-coding we would need to actually do that, but that’s the next thing we are working on.

OJR: Would then news websites want to tailor their news offerings based upon real time what people are interested in specific locations?

Ben: I think probably journalists will make their own decisions, but I think it’s good information to get from actual user data. This is what people are actually doing, as opposed to what they say they are interested in.

OJR: Does this connect with Yahoo News at the moment?

Ben: This is an experiment; it is not part of any Yahoo product. We would like to take advantage of it in Yahoo products going forward but for now we’re just at the bleeding edge trying to figure out how we would use this. Just the mechanism to get the data and to individualize it are a lot of the mechanics that we are working on right now. If that gets to a good enough state, then we would talk to products.

OJR: How far down the line is that?

Ben: (Laughs.) I really can’t say.

Ben then showed me an austere white-on-white globe of the earth with slow-moving blue specks shooting out from the surface of the North American continent. He explained that each speck represents a search query instance and that the speed and thickness of the particle streams indicate the popularity of the search. The data set at hand was a Yahoo search for “Mattel,” immediately following the lead-in-toys story that drove worried parents by the thousands to the Internet to search for their child’s toy.

Interesting stuff, and sure to give us too much information about ourselves down the line.

Other than than, NextFest was a bit of a bust from a journalist’s perspective. I mean, don’t get me wrong: the Google Lunar X Prize announcement was uber-cool (journalist was third on my list of childhood aspirations, astronaut and paleontologist being numbers one and two), but really, the lack of media eyecandy was disappointing. I would have thought it would have been a perfect fit for OJR–Wired is journalism that brings you technology and OJR is journalism about technology that brings you journalism–but eh, so it goes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

About Noah Barron

Hi, I used to be Robert Niles' research assistant, but I actually graduated and actually found a dead tree j-job at the Los Angeles Daily Journal, where I am general assignment/verdicts and settlements reporter.


  1. Hi Noah, it was great to meet you at Nextfest! I really have a ‘deer in the headlights’ thing going on in the video, sorry about that. I should mention that the amazing search query visualization was created by Aaron Koblin based on an idea by Aaron Meyers — they are incredible artist/engineers and deserve all the credit for this work!