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SXSW: FitBit Tech In Your Shoes; Streaming Video From Phones; Silkworm Sculptors: The Future Is Now

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Categorized Under: South by Southwest

New tech start-ups piled into Austin this weekend, all of them hoping to grab a foothold in the crowded digital marketplace. Alan Melson, KERA’s Vice President of Digital Media, has been blogging from the South by Southwest Interactive Conference.  We chatted about the trends that were really grabbing attention.

Listen to this report, which aired on KERA FM

Other posts from Alan Melson at SXSW

You’ve had a busy weekend with hundreds of panels and demonstrations. Is there anything  rising up that everybody is talking about?
Well, Anne, besides the usual marketing blitz, complaints about Austin traffic and the ongoing quest for the perfect breakfast taco, a term that keeps coming up again and again is the “Internet of Things” – the idea that more and more objects, like your watch or your thermostat, can connect to the Internet to either send or receive data that will make your life easier. Conference director Hugh Forrest estimated that over 70 sessions this year somehow referenced this concept.

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SXSW: For Computers, Our Evolving Language Can Get ‘Lost In Translation’

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Lau and Ehsani presented examples of news headlines that computers struggled to interpret.

Lau and Ehsani presented examples of news headlines that computers struggled to interpret (click to enlarge).

If you ask a large group of people if they’ve used natural language processing before, you’re likely to get a collective question mark in response.

But ask the same crowd if they’ve asked Siri a question on their iPhones, as Howard Lau and Farzad Ehsani did at this past weekend’s SXSW session “Lost In Translation: Slang, Search and Social”, and you’ll probably see a decent show of hands.

Apple’s Siri technology is just one example of how natural language processing (NLP), the field of study and development concerned with the interaction between computers and human linguistics, has been put to work in real-world applications.  Lau and Ehsani, who lead companies working on different aspects of the technology, explained why it’s an exciting and maddening area of software design because of the complexity of meaning and tone in the language we use.

“The more a word is used, the more ambiguous it becomes,” said Lau, CEO of Attensity, which provides data analytics – including social media monitoring – for large companies.  “You need other words around it to disambiguate it.”

Computers have gotten much better at speech recognition over the past decade, and there are plenty of examples across a spectrum of products where that technology is now being used.   However, Lau said uniquely human characteristics of language present a tremendous challenge for programmers. Emotion is hard to convey, for example, and slang is ever-evolving; words take on very different meanings based on geography and a number of other factors.

“Language is fundamentally tribal, meaning that we exist in special interest groups – training groups, professional groups, social groups, generational groups,” he said.  “ … Language marks who is in our tribe, and who isn’t.”

Ehsani, whose company Fluential builds a health and wellness smartphone app with speech recognition functionality, said there have typically been two different methods for NLP:  Following a set of clearly-defined rules for how language works, or throwing a ton of data at a machine so it “learns” how language works.  He said the current approach favors using both.

“There are 40 different rules on how to pluralize in English,” he said.  “That’s a lot for a human to learn, but easier for a machine if you give it enough examples.”

The pair cited IBM’s Watson machine, which famously won on Jeopardy, as a great example of how NLP was paired with artificial intelligence to achieve an astonishing ability to interpret human language.  Similar applications are now found in Siri and other similar consumer speech-recognition interfaces.

However, the amount of new linguistic data to parse through is staggering.  Nearly 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years, Lau said, and the majority was unsorted text.  His firm continues to try new methods for interpreting slang while tracking how its clients are talked about online.

“Social media is only one component – there are also e-mail logs, customer service notes, press releases, financial statements and more,” he said.  “All these need to come together in a common model for analysis and interpretation.”

Lau and Ehsani said the future will bring even more ways in which NLP is applied in daily use.  New languages are the next frontier; although the majority of work to date has been done in English, they said the research is going global, from companies building speech recognition platforms in China to work by the U.S. Department of Defense on Arabic recognition technologies.

Still, the constant evolution of how we communicate will always present a challenge for companies as they work to develop machines that can do a better job of understanding it.

“There are two parts to NLP: language and technology,” Lau said. “The language part doesn’t get enough attention.”

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SXSW: Behind The Scenes Of ‘House Of Cards’

Beau Willimon droppin' knowledge. Photo: Stephen Becker

Beau Willimon droppin’ knowledge. Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – The first thought in Beau Willimon’s head each morning is, “I’m going to die.”

Willimon is the show runner for House of Cards – basically the guy who guides the ship. And reminding himself of his mortality actually frees his mind up creatively. That’s because, for him, creativity is about failure. Of a thousand ideas he has for the show, maybe five will be good by his estimation, and two might be original. The rest are all failures. And when you fail that often, it’s healthy to remember that at least you’re not dying in those moments.

Sunday afternoon, Willimon guided a packed hotel ballroom full of budding writers and directors through his process for creating House of Cards, which just released its third season on Netflix last month.

A major topic of discussion was diversity – specifically, how a show can portray a diverse array of experiences in an honest and real way. What frustrates Willimon is when he sees a television show or movie in which, say, a minority character is really just a token.

“We’ll make the judge black, because that way we’re gonna show this very smart, powerful, intelligent person sitting behind the bench who’s African American,” he said. “OK, but you’re creating a symbol or a cypher. You’re not actually writing a character. That in its own way is another form of neglect.”

He takes the same rigorous approach to diversity with his female characters. Since the beginning, Claire Underwood has been positioned as her husband’s equal. And in the new season, presidential hopefuls Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp go toe-to-toe with the president and don’t back down.

Which doesn’t mean that his characters are genderless.

“Claire has hot flashes. That’s a real thing. It would be really weird if Frank had hot flashes,” he joked.

The trick is not allowing the gender-specific aspects of the characters to define them.

“One should not reduce that character to those experiences. So if her only story – or her main story – was parimenopause, then we’d be sort of reductive in relegating this female character to something that only a woman can experience. It’s much more interesting if that’s just a real part of her life that we touch upon because it’s happening, but it doesn’t drive her story.”

Another topic during the session was how the show balances its real-world feel while playing in what’s, essentially, an alternate universe. Barak Obama isn’t the president in House of Cards, etc. That makes viewers wonder about the more ripped-from-the-headlines plot points. For example, Season 3 has a major Russian storyline.

But as Willimon reminded us, those scripts get cooking a year before we see the episodes.

“When we started working on that storyline, my biggest fear was that nobody would care about Russia, because Russia wasn’t in the news,” he said. “Eerily, as we were filming Season 3, Ukraine and Crimea happened.”

A similar thing happened with a Season 2 storyline about sexual assault in the military.

“We’re not prophets – we don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “We’re participating in the same zeitgeist that you guys are. And if you’re just open and absorbent, sometimes you stumble upon things without even realizing it that everyone cares about but just doesn’t know it yet.”

Other odds and ends:

Willimon grew up in St. Louis and had the same 7th grade acting teacher as Jon Hamm and Ellie Kemper. … In the original British version of the show, the main character is named Francis Urquhart – a name that was a little too Scottish for the American show. So Willimon changed the character’s last name to Underwood because, well, it was fitting to keep the same initials. … As for a Season 4 – all Willimon would say is no formal announcement has been made yet.

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SXSW: David Gordon Green Won’t Be Pinned Down

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Categorized Under: South by Southwest
Al Pacino plays Manglehorn's title character. Photo: SXSW

Al Pacino plays Manglehorn’s title character. Photo: SXSW

AUSTIN – The conference room that David Gordon Green’s doing interviews in looks like the one in Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back. The one where Lando hands Han over to Vader.

“I actually just showed my 4-year-olds the trilogy for the first time,” Green says. “We played Ewoks this morning.”

Green’s latest film probably won’t play quite as well with the kids. Manglehorn stars Al Pacino as a man so fixated on a lost love that he’s blind to the real family and friends all around him. It’s another tough-to-categorize film from a man whose entire career is hard to sum up. Ten years ago, the Richardson native and Austin resident was an indie darling with George Washington and Snow Angels. Five years ago, he was the king of the stoner comedy with Pineapple Express and Your Highness. And lately, he’s focused on men grappling with their past selves in Joe and now Manglehorn.

“I like to surprise myself. People like to think a director has a particular signature – I’m Alfred Hitchcock and I direct thrillers. Or I’m M. Night Shyamalan and I do this other thing,” he says. “And in a lot of ways, it’s a good business model if you can have that signature. But I don’t have the attention span just to do the same thing.”

One film he hasn’t made yet is one for kids. With those twins in the house, he says it’s not out of the question.

“I have one idea that I’ve been chewing on, but every time I start writing it, it ends up too melancholy for children I think,” he says. “Every time I start doing it, it ends up like The Straight Story – which is a beautiful movie. But you kinda engineer something for a G-rated audience and it ends up more for old people.”

Look for more here from our interview about Manglehorn and directing one of the screen’s all-time icons a little closer to the movie’s June release.

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SXSW: Evel Knievel Lives On


Photo: Helo


AUSTIN – Saturday night, two guys in their mid-40s sitting a couple seats down spent the better part of the movie we were watching high fiving each other, trading thumbs ups and generally acting like a couple of joyful 1970s teenagers. It was actually adorable.

The credit for their bliss goes to Being Evel, a documentary about daredevil Robert “Evel” Knievel that is playing SXSW after debuting earlier this year at Sundance. The movie charts Knievel from his days evading the law in his hometown of Butte, Mont., through his rise to stardom and ultimate fall from grace. Sprinkled throughout are plenty of sweet motorcycle jumps.

Knievel’s darker days – in which he drank heavily, ran around on his wife, berated the constant media hordes and even served time for beating a promoter with a baseball bat – also get fair treatment.

“Our memory of him is so kinetic and action-oriented,” director Daniel Junge said after the screening. “He was a hero to me as a kid like he was to so many of our generation. But as I grew up, we learn that our heroes are sometimes less than heroic. … So this film, 35 years later, is a way of trying reconcile that childhood image with the person I came to know as an adult.”

The time that’s passed since Knievel’s prime has allowed for some perspective on his popularity. In the age of disillusionment over Vietnam and Nixon’s lies to the country, Knievel was all truth. Whether he landed the jump or not, what you saw was what you got.

Being Evel is also a reminder of what a true pioneer and showman Knievel was. With his white jumpsuit and cape, he was Liberace on wheels. And in hindsight, it does seem truly crazy just how much he made it up as he went along. His first big stunt, in which he jumped the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, was just a hunch he had that he could do it. And he almost did, until his tire clipped the ramp on the other side, sending him skidding like a rag doll 60 feet. That one caused a pair of broken ankles, a broken wrist and plenty of scratches and bruises.

But it’s Knievel’s fearlessness and willingness to give it a go that’s inspired everything from skateboarders to Jackass. Without him, there’d probably be no X Games. As someone says in the film – no one wanted to see him die, but they sure didn’t want to miss it if he did. ABC’s Wide World of Sports never missed a chance to show his latest stunt.

“As kids, we didn’t really care if he made it or not – it was about the attempt,” Junge said.

All of his big attempts are here – his failed rocket-propelled trip over the Snake River Canyon, the time he just missed clearing 13 double-decker buses in front of 80,000 in Wembly Stadium. They’re the stunts that inspired people like those guys in the audience to set up a couple of small ramps on their streets to see if they could jump their BMXs over their buddies.

Sometimes you made it, sometimes you didn’t. Either way, you had a story to tell in the lunchroom on Monday.

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SXSW: How Kids Change the Way We Design for Adults

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Categorized Under: South by Southwest

KERA’s Art&Seek is covering the 2015 South by Southwest Conference in Austin. Read more coverage from this and previous years in our SXSW archive.

When building digital apps for kids, chaos may be the best approach.

That may sound anathema for a company known for its beautiful design and well-planned user experiences, but the Swedish/American interactive firm Doberman has learned a lot from its foray into children’s software.  As Doberman CEO Lisa Lindström and Experience Strategist Kerry Bodine outlined in their SXSW session on Friday, those lessons have changed the way they design for adults too.

Takeaways about designing for kids can just as easily be applied to adults, according to Lisa Lindström and Kerry Bodine.  (via @jmikemcculloch on Twitter)

Takeaways about designing for kids can just as easily be applied to adults, according to Lisa Lindström and Kerry Bodine. (via @jmikemcculloch on Twitter)

Lindström and Bodine opened their presentation by discussing the rather short history of organized kids play. From Roman times through the mid-19th century, once children grew out of infancy they were treated much like adults: if you were wealthy, you often began schooling where play was not a component, and if you were poor you were generally pushed into manual labor at an early age.  The first playground in the United States wasn’t even built until 1887, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Now, however, play is recognized as an integral part of childhood, and incredibly important to intellectual and emotional development.  Interactive games for children have been a growing segment of the software development industry for years; as technology evolved, that market exploded into tens of thousands of games and educational apps, as devices became more powerful and less expensive overall.

Websites designed for kids in the early days of the Internet seemed to focus on bright colors, bold text and cute pictures, but otherwise weren’t much different from sites aimed at an older audience.  However, Lindström and Bodine said research has shown that kids have very different cognitive, motor and social skills – and thus a different set of needs that digital experiences must meet.  For example, kids under age 8 often struggle to differentiate between content and ads, and kids under 3 aren’t capable of the level of abstract thought needed to connect a picture or icon with the real thing it stands for.

Given these realizations, their firm set out to design their kids games through a careful iterative process of research and design – and soon learned that none of their approaches were really working.  Scavenger hunts to simulate a user experience path were “boring”; simple worksheets to gauge interest and reaction weren’t completed.  So, they moved from what the duo termed a “production society” approach – insight, strategy, design and production – to a “prototyping society” model, where they constantly moved back and forth between the different development stages, with different teams working on different elements based on how kids reacted to them.

“Maybe children aren’t clueless,” Lindström said. “Maybe children are the clue.”

A two-minute sketch of a kids' banking user experience, designed for four-year-olds (via @michelle_pujals on Twitter)

A two-minute sketch of a banking user experience designed for four-year-olds (via @michelle_pujals on Twitter)

As part of the new model, their team members “embraced chaos” – they just watched how kids played, and maintained a loose agile development schedule so they could constantly make improvements to different areas based on the reactions they got.  They also threw out the rules and ignored earlier ideas about a fixed process, in order to let the kids’ input drive the user experience design process.   In the session, Lindström and Bodine gave each of the audience members a Post-It Note and a marker, and asked them to design a basic banking user experience designed for a 4-year-old in two minutes.  Lindström posted several of the resulting designs on Twitter.

You’d think adults would be markedly different, but Lindström and Bodine said their research has actually improved their design work for adult applications.  By moving to a more loose development schedule for subsequent projects, such as a site for health insurance firm Oscar, they have been able to declutter their user experience into beautiful, simple layouts with a friendly tone of voice – and the reaction from clients and users has been overwhelmingly positive.

Their last bit of advice for those embarking on digital development is to ditch meetings whenever possible and focus on play:  What can you learn from games that you like?  What websites you visit for fun “just work,” and thus inspire you to visit them again?

Although their presentation was cut short by an ill-timed fire alarm that emptied the session, Lindström and Bodine clearly articulated their point that a systematic, staged approach to development may not always be the best approach for kids or adults. Instead, spend your time planning “play” for potential users – interacting with games that can help inform your application’s design, trying out pieces of your work and discussing other sites or games that they love.

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SXSW: The Collision of Design, Biology and Tech

Paola Antonelli of MoMA, speaking at SXSW 2015. (user @sachiyop on Instagram)

Paola Antonelli of MoMA, speaking at SXSW 2015. (user @sachiyop on Instagram)

KERA’s Art&Seek is covering the 2015 South by Southwest Conference in Austin. Read more coverage from this and previous years in the SXSW archive.

Picture a work of sculpture, conceived and planned by artists but realized by thousands of insects working in tandem with a robot.

Or perhaps a pile of bricks made from crops and fungi, which are then combined to build durable, ecologically sustainable and aesthetically important structures.

These and other experiments have been realized in the last couple of years through a combination of emerging technology and boundary-pushing art, happening in studios and labs across the globe – and they were highlighted on the first day of SXSW 2015 as part of a keynote on new trends in modern design.

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PHOTOS: ‘Back To The Music,’ The Undead 35 Denton

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Categorized Under: Local Events, Music

On Friday the 13th, 35 Denton rose from its shallow grave and returned to Downtown Denton. We have pictures to prove it.

The independent three-day music festival returned yesterday evening to venues near East Hickory and East Oak Streets after a yearlong moratorium and continues through Sunday evening.

Life for 35 Denton began in 2005, in the form of annual South by Southwest house show “Nx35: The Afternoon Party of the Other, Smaller, Music Town in Texas,” which showcased Denton bands. Eventually it transferred to Denton, where it grew into the city’s own darling indie fest, the kid sister of South by Southwest.

Its name changed – Nx35 to 35 Conferette to 35 Denton, and it took place right before the music portion of the older, wiser Austin hoorah. The festival brought national artists such as Big Boi, The Flaming Lips, Solange, Reggie Watts, Sleep and Dr. Dog to the Little D. In turn, crowds were drawn from North Texas as well as from out-of-state to see the Denton talent.

In 2013, 35 Denton had its “Best Fest Ever Fest” and shortly after, organizers announced the festival was takign a break. Core staff members wanted to pursue new endeavors and sponsors dropped out.

It is the essence of 35 Denton’s original mission to emphasize local, specifically Denton-based, musicians. Of the 250 acts in this year’s lineup, 94 are from Denton and 180 are from Texas.

“Back to the Music,” is the theme and this year’s 35 D creature has a Denton-saturated heart with limbs of new and remaining core staff pieced together by a slew of recently developed venues (i.e. Harvest House—which had its grand opening with the kickoff of the festival— and Dan’s Silverleaf’s new patio, which turned it into a two-staged venue).

It’s only appropriate the main attraction is The Zombies, being revived from its heyday in the 60s.

Hits you probably know but may have no idea were from this British rock band include “Time of the Season” and “She’s Not There.”

General Admission into 35 Denton is $65, while day passes are $35 and can be bought here. Art&Seek will follow the tale of the festival all weekend. Tune in Monday for the recap.


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SXSW: Ava DuVernay, Motivational Speaker

Photo: Stephen Becker

Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – Ava DuVernay made it to town at 1 o’clock this morning. In 10 hours, she’d be giving the SXSW film keynote address. And she hadn’t written a word.

Which is understandable – she’s in the middle of developing a pair of television series and only just recently stepped off the Selma rollercoaster.

So credit today’s moving, motivating keynote to the focusing powers of deadline.

DuVernay told a crowd of a few hundred at the Austin Convention Center about the lessons she learned by making her first three films.

Her first narrative, I Will Follow, she made for $50,000 with the intention of getting notice for Affirm, a distribution collective she founded. Mission accomplished.

Her second film, Middle of Nowhere, she made for $200,000 with the intention of getting into Sundance.


But if her successes taught her anything, it was that she could accomplish what she her mind to, but a goal can be misplaced.

“My error wasn’t what was achieved – because on both films I made great strides as a filmmaker and a film distributor,” she said. “The error was my intention in the first place – and where I put my attention. Because I wasn’t making great strides as a human being and an artist.”

Properly conceived intention, and devoting all of your attention on that idea, is the key to success, she says. And, yes – she learned that from Oprah.

The Queen of All Media was a guiding force for DuVernay’s next film, Selma. All of a sudden she had $20 million to make a movie – that’s 100 times the budget of her previous film.

But instead of focusing on delivering big box office or piling up awards, she fixated on what she was really there to do.

“I had no thought about any of that other crap that usually had motivated me to make films,” she said. “I went into that film with one thought, singular and clear: serve this story. Serve this story – you have to. It wasn’t made with any sort of achievement in mind, it was an experience and an offering.”

So she thought about her father, who’s from Alabama. She thought about John Lewis and Martin Luther King. And she thought about all of the nameless, faceless activists whose story she was charged with telling. By serving the story, she was allowing herself to truly think big.

“If your dream only includes you, it’s too small. If that dream is just about the thing you want to accomplish and you don’t even know why you want it – it’s too small,” she said. “It may take your attention, but you’re not really winning. You may achieve it, but you’re not growing from it. You’re just going from thing to thing. It may look like success from the outside. But if you don’t even truly know why you’re doing it, then your cause and effect will be off, and you’re not going to be fully truly living your dream.”

Oprah couldn’t have said it better.

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SXSW: Exploring The Limits Of Free Speech In ‘Welcome To Leith’


Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – In 2013, the town of Leith, N.D., had a population of 16 adults – 24 if you count the kids. The only business was a small bar. The mayor had served on the city council since he was 16.

It was the perfect target for Craig Cobb.

The noted white supremacist figured if he could buy property in the town and convince like-minded people to move in, before long he’d have all the votes he needed to turn Leith into some sort of Nazi wonderland.

Christopher K. Walker and Michael Beach Nichols read about Cobb’s plot in The New York Times. Two months later, they were on the ground in Leith documenting the residents’ fight to preserve their town.

The resulting documentary, Welcome to Leith, is impressive in its evenhandedness. The townspeople explain their obvious objections. Cobb and his followers argue for their free speech and right to participate in the democratic process.

In fact, it’s kind of surprising how much access Cobb gave to the directors.

“Part of it I think is just the fact that we were a small team,” Nichols said after Friday night’s screening. “Honestly, I think it’s also – neither of us are Jewish. We’re both white. I think that helped ease him when he was around us. And I think because we’re both relatively young, he potentially thought we could be swayed. I mean, this is all speculation, but he certainly asked these questions of us.”

Nichols and Walker gained the trust of people on both sides of Leith’s divide. And by the end of the film, there’s really no reason to think that either side would be upset by how they come off.

“We made a very conscious decision to not make this film if we could not have both sides represented,” Walker said. “The trick to getting that was asking the questions … and not interjecting our own point of view within that process.”

It’s journalism 101 made particularly tough in this case, when, let’s face it – society wouldn’t have a lot of trouble judging who’s right and who’s wrong here. As we say in the business – sometimes you’ve gotta let people hang themselves with their own noose.

But Walker says that the real reason for their dedication to objectivity is they wanted to make a film that could ask big questions.

“We wanted this film basically to spark a big dialogue in terms of what does free speech mean in a democratic society,” he said. “A lot of countries around the world ban hate speech. What would that do to our country if we ban hate speech? Should we ban hate speech? Should we not ban hate speech? What would that do to the country known for being the freest in the world?”

Welcome to Leith will play the Dallas International Film Festival in April. If you don’t catch it there, look for it on PBS series Independent Lens next year.

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