ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND

What can a researcher learn at a tech conference? BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing goes to Next Berlin 2012 to find out.

 

Editor’s Note: As research and technology continue to become inextricably entwined and the development of the “data culture” continues to evolve at an increasing rate it is becoming increasingly important for market research to take it’s cues from the tech world. Conversely, tech companies are learning a lot about how to engage with consumers and how to provide additional value through their technology from research organizations. This relationship may be a bit rocky, but it’s creating a lot of value for both sides. Tom Ewing, Digital Culture Officer of BrainJuicer, is one of the folks at the forefront of this intersection and today he gives us a quick overview of his experience at the recent Next Berlin 2012 conference. I suspect we’re going to see more crossovers like this over the next few years.

If you want to read Tom’s talk from the conference, you can find that on his Blackbeard Blog here. I highly recommend that you read it; it focuses on the implications of behavioral economics on technology development and adoption, and has significant takeaways for MR as well.

By Tom Ewing

When I was invited to speak about behavioral science and the web at European technology conference Next Berlin 2012, I was nervous and excited. I’m a research conference regular, but I’d never spoken at a tech event before, and even the ones I’ve attended have had a strong marketing or advertising bent. Next 2012, though, was the real deal – crowds of entrepreneurs, developers, investors and only a smattering of marketing people. I was probably the only researcher at the conference, let alone on the podium. How different would it all be to the research events I was used to – and what could I learn from the differences?

As you might expect, tech is a restless, forward-looking industry. When research conferences talk about the next big thing, it’s with a certain wistfulness or impatience – trackers and large-scale quant surveys still account for the bulk of our industry, and we know it. When tech conferences talk about the next big thing, it’s simple realism: there will be a next big thing, there always is, and it might be one of us who makes it. On day one at Next, in the Arena stage, 12 start-ups pitched to a panel. At a research conference it would be an entertaining sideshow – a round of applause for all our plucky experimenters! – but here it was the most fiercely tweeted part of the day.

One upshot of this is that the previous big things in tech barely got mentioned. The research industry is obsessively interested in the doings of Facebook and Google – a speaker from either will draw serious crowds. But at Next there was very little talk about them and what they do – they’re the establishment now, and the point of technology is to think about the future.

Introspection isn’t completely extinct in tech, but it manifests itself in very different ways. The research industry is prone to endless debates about its very existence – everything from the name research, to the jobs we do, to the philosophies that underpin our work is perpetually up for grabs. Tech introspection is more localist and specific, based on the uncomfortable realities of regional difference in a globalized industry, and it manifests itself in questions like “Are Europeans too risk-averse?”. One of the sharper arguments of the conference centered on the uneasy relationship between the German and Russian tech scenes: what could Berlin learn by looking East? Quite a lot, said one Eastern European tweeter: “We’re solving real problems while you’re building apps to find your missing cupcakes”

Cupcakes aside, the conference in general seemed happier with demonstration than analysis. The bulk of presenters had come to show off something they’d built – from an augmented reality children’s book to a robot tentacle worryingly reminiscent of Spider-Man’s enemy Doctor Octopus. And apps, of course – apps by the score. There were terrific, inspiring talks too – like Russell Davies’ celebration of homebrew gadgets and the impossibility of telling silly and brilliant ideas apart. But the soul of a tech conference is the ideas themselves, so here are five of the best:

  1. Thinglink: – http://www.thinglink.com/ – is a tool to “make images interactive” – putting in HTML links, extra information, feedback forms, and so on. It’s not dissimilar to the mark-up whiteboards researchers use in MROCs, except Thinglink aims to work across the whole web. At the moment the links feel a little obtrusive but in an ever-more visual internet these kind of tools will be essential.
  2. Project Now – an app-in-progress from London music and tech development team RjDj, it’s so new I can’t even link to it! But it’s a great idea – an app which passively identifies your context and learns from your music preferences to find the right soundtrack for any activity or environment. Context is a hot topic in research, and of course tech is fascinated by it too.
  3. Evrything – http://evrythng.com/ – is another angle on the “internet of things”. It’s a way to give existing objects unique digital identities without having to build it into them. So you might have “Tom’s guitar” or “Lenny’s Shoes” with their own identity and profile online. For me it opens up the possibilities for “thingnography”, where the focus is on an object, its location, and its uses – and that object could report on where it is, remind its user to tell us about it, and so on.
  4. The Arena Stage – most of the conference formats at Next 2012 would be familiar to researchers, but the Arena Stage was a little different. Mostly used for start-up, it was an open stage in the round, in the middle of the main networking area – very easy to drift in and out and ideal for informal, quick, passionate presenting. It made the whole event a lot livelier.
  5. 3D Printing – with the first under-$500 3D printer just launched, there’s a sense that 3D printing might just be where home computing was 20-25 years ago, so 3D-printed objects gained a lot of attention. We were entertained by a recital on a printed violin, saw gamers make their World Of Warcraft characters into unique action figures, and were left to contemplate the implications for manufacturers of a world where any household object can be exactly customized.
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