South by Southwest’s organizers reversed course Friday and scheduled a summit about gaming-related Internet harassment, after criticism for canceling similar sessions at next year’s event due to threats of violence at the festival.
“Earlier this week we made a mistake,” Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, said in a statement on its website. “By canceling two sessions we sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it, and for that we are truly sorry.”
The spring festival, held annually in Austin, Texas, unites technorati, filmmakers and musicians from around the world. Its decision to cancel two panels on online harassment and objectification of women in gaming drew the ire of panelists, women’s rights advocates and two media organizations. Vox Media and BuzzFeed both announced they would boycott the festival unless the panels were restored.
SXSW’s about-face comes four days after the festival canceled the panels in the wake of the Gamergate controversy, in which some gamers have been accused of misogyny, bullying and making death threats. Those most affected included cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian and female game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. Wu was forced to flee her home out of fear. South by Southwest’s organizers said they had received threats of violence at next year’s event.
The all-day online-harassment summit, slated for March 12, will feature Wu, Facebook product policy head Monica Bickert and Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark, who criticized SXSW’s decision to cancel the panels.
“While we made the decision in the interest of safety for all of our attendees, canceling sessions was not an appropriate response,” SXSW’s Forrest said, adding the organizers had worked with authorities and security experts. “Online harassment is a serious matter and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyberbullying.”
Whether the summit is a success or a “train wreck” will depend largely on SXSW organizers and their willingness to support women in the tech field, Aminatou Sow said in an email Friday. Sow is co-founder of the Tech LadyMafia listserve, an online forum for women in technology.
“It will be critical for them to take time to address the mistakes they made in the lead-up to the event,” she said. “Too often, harassment is blamed solely on online trolls. But what also needs to be discussed is the entire tech industry’s role in minimizing women’s experiences both on and offline.”
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Joe Paradiso chuckles at the unexpected growl of a small aircraft engine.
The airplane isn’t overhead. It’s 50 miles away, passing over a former cranberry bog that Paradiso and his research team are monitoring. Microphones planted there have relayed the sound to his workspace here at the MIT Media Lab as we look at a computer screen showing the virtual Tidmarsh landscape.
The laser-scanned view of the wetland shows temperatures logged by dozens of sensors carefully placed in the 600-acre expanse. We’ll soon be able to see numbers for humidity, light level and other climate stats.
The airplane quickly passes, and we can better hear the atmospheric, New Age-y soundtrack shaped by the stream of data. Paradiso, 59, calls to a colleague to see about switching to a spookier nighttime sound.
It feels rather like video game, and that’s by design for Paradiso and his Responsive Environments group.
“One thing we like to do…is create new experiences,” said Paradiso. “Our theme is really about sensing, as in the nervous system of the planet.”
Paradiso’s reimagining of farmland is only one of the far-out projects at the Media Lab, a six-story future factory located a block from the Charles River on the eastern fringe of the MIT campus. The Media Lab, which prizes an “antidisciplinary” and hands-on academic culture, celebrates its 30th anniversary Friday.
You’d frustrate yourself trying to categorize the work being done here. The names of the two dozen research groups are wildly diverse and evocative: Opera of the Future, Lifelong Kindergarten, Synthetic Neurobiology. More than 150 graduate students, 40 faculty members and a steady stream of visiting scientists and undergrads pitch in on the 350 projects currently under way.
Nothing is out of bounds for the Media Lab. Peer through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the building’s labs and you’ll find researchers building prosthetics, personal robots, holographic video displays and glass objects created by 3D printers.
‘Do interesting things’
That diversity and openness are part of what keep the ideas sparking.
“It’s really a synthesis between art, science, engineering and design,” said Joi Ito, director of the Media Lab. “Having all of this happening in the same place allows you to do things and impact the world in an interesting way.”
The creative mishmash serves to do more than generate pie-in-the-sky ideas. It attracts corporate sponsors that provide the majority of the Media Lab’s close to $60 million annual operating budget. More than 80 companies — the Media Lab calls them “members” — pay the minimum $250,000 fee to belong to the club. Members, which make a three-year commitment, include Google, Intel, Twitter, Toyota, GlaxoSmithKline, Estee Lauder, Ikea, New Balance and Coca-Cola.
Corporate participation isn’t simply sponsorship of academia. The fee gives members royalty-free licensing for as long as they’re members. It’s an arrangement that has led to, among other things, Lego Mindstorms robot-building kits.
“That’s a really important design feature,” said Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank focused on innovation. “Otherwise it would create a closed community…and effectively create a customer relationship that would limit the collaboration that’s so important for the Lab to work well.”
Startups and spinoffs
E-Ink Corp. may be Media Lab’s biggest success story. Spun out in 1997, the company developed “electronic paper” displays, low-power screens that replicate book pages. If you own an Amazon Kindle or Sony e-reader, you’ve used E-Ink’s technology.
Other projects have also translated into commercial success. Spotify, the streaming music service, bought Media Lab progeny Echo Nest last year for an undisclosed amount. Echo Nest was coveted because its software tools help make sense of music-listening data for online radio services and social media outlets.
EyeNetra, based in neighboring Somerville, Massachusetts, spun out of Media Lab’s Camera Culture group in October 2011. The 15-person startup designs simple, smartphone-powered eye tests that can be conducted outside of an optometrist’s office.
Its product, the Netra, resembles a plastic binocular case. A Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone snaps into the end of the case and you peer through the other. As you turn dials to respond to patterns on the screen, an app measures your degree of nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism.
At $900, which includes the smartphone, the highly portable Netra is a fraction of the cost of standard diagnostic machines. Commercial sales of the device began in August, and it is already a key tool for the company’s Blink service, which launched in New York City to provide on-demand eye tests. It is also being used in the similar Nayantara service in India.
The technology could soon be used to develop prescription displays for virtual-reality headsets.
Not all of Media Lab’s creations will have a quick payoff. A few years back, for instance, the Camera Culture group designed an array of 500 sensors and a titanium sapphire laser that captures 1 trillion frames per second. It has not had an immediate real-world application, but people at Media Lab say it could eventually prove useful in medical imaging, industrial design and even consumer photography.
“We try to capture the world in the most crazy, amazing way we can,” said Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor who heads the Camera Culture group. “Then [we] try to make sense of all of it in something that can be comprehended by everyone.”
Data from the wild
Camera Culture and Paradiso’s Responsive Environments group are both part of the Lab’s Center for Terrestrial Sensing, whose mission is to find new ways to “sense and visualize inaccessible natural environments.”
One of Responsive Environments’ core projects centers on the Tidmarsh Living Observatory, a pair of former cranberry farms near historic Plymouth, Massachusetts, that are being restored to their natural state as bogs.
The bogs, a distinctive North American wetland environment, are dotted with an array of low-power sensors to measure temperature, humidity and light.
For Paradiso, the project is about more than recording climate statistics. It’s about what it means to be “present,” experiencing and understanding the world about you as fully as possible, with technology helping to make that happen.
The Tidmarsh initiative aims to let people interact with data in a 3D environment through a “cross-reality browser” built on the Unity game engine. The software crawls through sensor data the way search engines crawl through data on the Web. The long-term goal, in Paradiso’s view, is to liberate viewers from the laws of physics.
“They can float around. They can zoom up and down. They have access to information everywhere,” Paradiso says in a video about the project. “We took the sensor data as a canvas for being creative.”
Tidmarsh picks up from an earlier project that used sensors to keep tabs on the Media Lab building, and it offers a hint of how we might interact with the Internet of Things, shorthand for a connected world in which cars, homes, sidewalks and clothing monitor and tabulate our lives.
It’s also an example of the Media Lab’s overriding concept: no idea is too crazy. To borrow the title of Stewart Brand’s late-’80s book about the institution, everyone there is inventing the future. It’s all about looking beyond the horizon.
Mark Zuckerberg is determined to expand Internet access in India, and the rest of the world for that matter.
The Facebook CEO repeated that ambition during a town hall meeting Wednesday at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi. Zuckerberg told the audience of students and professionals that the social network’s mission is to make the Internet accessible to the entire world, them included.
“If you really have a mission of connecting every person in the world, you can’t do that without helping to connect everyone in India,” he said. “We take that very seriously.”
The hour-long question-and-answer session came during Zuckerberg’s second trip in the past year to India, underscoring the country’s importance to the tech giant. With 132 million Facebook users, India’s user base is second only to the United States’ 193 million monthly active users.
How far is Facebook willing to go to win over India’s population? The social network this week launched “2G Tuesdays,” an internal program that aims to give its workers a sense of the very slow Internet connections typically found in India and parts of Asia and Africa.
Critics have charged that the free service violates the concept of Net neutrality by favoring content from Facebook over other providers’ content. During Wednesday’s meeting in India, Zuckerberg was asked if he “100 percent” supports Net neutrality, the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally.
“Net neutrality is an important principle,” he said. “We do a lot to support it, both in terms of pushing for regulation that kind of enables us and building an open platform that any developer can build something for, regardless of who they are, as long as they follow the rules [of Free Basics].”
Zuckerberg added there’s a lot of debate about Net neutrality as India and other countries are trying to figuring out what they want their rules to be.
“It’s important that we have regulations that prevent companies and people from doing things that are going to hurt people,” he said.
There are also about a billion people in India without Internet access, and that needs to change, Zuckerberg added.
“The people who are not yet on the Internet can’t sign an online petition pushing for increased access to the Internet,” he said. “We all have a moral responsibility to look out for people who don’t have the Internet, and make sure that the rules that benefit us, don’t get twisted for people who don’t have a voice.”
This was Zuckerberg’s second such town hall meeting discussing India and Internet access. He held a QA session with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the social network’s headquarters last month.
All work and no play not only makes Jack a dull boy. It makes for a boring vacation.
So why not turn the hotel best known for its role in “The Shining” into a horror museum and film facility to attract tourists and moviemakers?
Last week, the iconic hotel announced plans to open a horror museum, as well as a film production studio and archive. The proposed Stanley Film Center will feature both indoor and outdoor entertainment venues, including a 500-seat auditorium and a 30,000-square-foot interactive museum and discovery center featuring rotating exhibits such as “The Walking Dead,” according to a statement.
Stephen King, the best-selling author who wrote the book that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie, was inspired by the stately Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, after he and his wife spent time virtually alone there during the off-season.
The couple checked into room 217, which was said to be haunted. In fact, King is said to have encountered a young child during his stay, though there were no children visiting at that time, according to the website.
Even the popular SyFy reality show “Ghost Hunters” aired an episode with the team attempting to make contact with any restless spirits roaming the long corridors of the Stanley Hotel.
The film center will work with the Colorado Film School in Denver to create integrated educational programs for students and the public. Apprenticeship and artist-in-residence programs will allow students to participate in making the center run.
The Stanley Film Center’s founding members include prominent actors, producers and directors including Simon Pegg; George A. Romero, director of “Night of the Living Dead;” Josh Waller; Daniel Noah; and Mick Garris, who often works with Stephen King to turn the author’s books into television versions.
“Students and faculty will work side by side with some of the biggest industry names to design exhibits, curate films, program events and lead workshops and master classes,” Frederic Lahey, founding director of the Colorado Film School, said in a statement. “This is the type of opportunity that will draw students from around the world.”
Before construction can begin, plans for the Stanley Film Center have to be approved by the state, since the project applied for an $11.5 million credit via the State of Colorado’s Regional Tourism Act.
Here’s hoping none of the students suffer from cabin fever.