Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Innotech 2009

Still cursing Austin's prehistoric self-pay parking lots, I walked into the Innotech Beta Summit panel, a showcase of select Austin startups. To my surprise, parking meters were mentioned there. A representative of Infochimps, a company that specializes in "making large data sets sexy", said a collection of locations of parking spots in downtown Austin is an example of those sexy data sets. (Another example is TAKS scores.) Anyone can put a data set on Infochimps web site, and if some organization or person is interested in it, they can buy it. Well, I'm sure glad some company is interested in locations of parking meters in Austin downtown. Whatever they are up to might make parking easier one day, who knows?

Wouldn't it be nice to have an application that showed all parking spots within a certain radius? It could direct me to a nearest free spot as I wind my way through downtown, looking for parking. But maybe such an app for iPhone already exists? I don't have an iPhone (and now that I've been laid off I don't anticipate buying one soon), so I don't know.

I expected Beta Summit to be the most interesting Innotech panel, and it was. It featured 6 or 7 Austin startups. The first one, BuzzStream, did not impress me all that much, perhaps because I came to the talk late. The only impression I got from it was that it did some kind of fancy contact management, integrating your contacts with social management sites. Or perhaps it was yet another social media aggregator, the kind that gathers all the content your friends have posted on various other sites, into one news feed. We all have seen social media applications that claimed to be the aggregator to end all aggregators, and then a few months later no one remembers them. Plurk comes to mind.

The next presenter was Gendai Games. Their product lets you create an iPhone game in minutes, even if you are not a programmer. As a demo, Nestor Hernandez recreated the game Labyrinth in front of the audience. He did that he dragged widgets, such as Accelerate and Collide, on the screen. Those widgets made a ball accelerate when iPhone is tilted, or bounce off the "walls", i.e. the sides of the screen. Pretty neat.

Eric Moujaes from Gendai Games Tristan Slominski speaking on Operational Transformation: The Key to Understanding Google Wave
Eric Moujaes from Gendai Games Tristan Slominski speaking on Operational Transformation: The Key to Understanding Google Wave

One web application everybody could relate to was Gelato, a dating site that works differently than most dating sites. On an ordinary dating site members have static profiles that are often misleading or uninformative. People often post younger and thinner pictures of themselves. Steve Odom, the founder of Gelato, believes that people's social media data streams reveals much more about them than their self-proclaimed love of "long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners". Their Tweets, Flickr photos, YouTube videos or Netflix queues, or soundtracks on internet radio stations they listen to, reflect a much fuller, dynamic picture of their tastes and their preferred ways to spend time. So Gelato aggregates all that into a user's profile. Is that a bit too stalkerish? Users can opt out of whichever feeds they prefer others not to see.

As a demo, Steve Odom pulled up a woman's profile on Gelato. "Would I want to date her?" he asked the audience. Her Twitter word cloud (another neat feature of Gelato) showed that her most commonly used word was LOL. "Hmm, maybe not," Odom concluded.

Another web application of broad appeal was PetMD. It's analogous to medical information sites, only about pet health. It also helps you find a veterinarian, even an emergency vet if need be.

There may have been other startups, but I left early.

This conference was a mix of technical and soft presentations. It's always hard to know which ones to choose; an appealing tile can be misleading. So there was some kind of "work/life balance for entrepreneurs" panel, where a self-proclaimed work/life balance coach did nothing but slung cliches about success like "you are your own worst enemy"; I spent half an hour before concluding it was BS. But by then I missed the first half of "Operational Transformation: The Key to Understanding Google Wave" presentation by Tristan Slominski. When I came in, he and the audience were up to their eyeballs in the APIs. Operational Transformation is kind of like a platform on which Google Wave is written. Knowing its API, you can write your own clients that will be able to communicate with other Operational Transform clients. For example, Slominski says, those could be plug-ins for IDEs (i.e. development environments -- tools in which programmers write, compile, build and test their code.

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