NextFest showcases innovation, robot sheep

    Futurologists once dreamed up a world of flying cars and robo-butlers, x-ray goggles and food in pill form.

    Somewhere between then and now, something clicked. The dreamers saw the developing gap between human progress and environmental welfare, and realized that this gap would not close until their visions changed dramatically.

    The resulting ideas are the focus of WIRED Magazine’s fifth annual NextFest, a showcase that exhibits the latest in technological advancements from video games to electric cars.

    As expected, the overwhelming majority of exhibits are still just ideas. Most will never even see the light of day. And as great as it would be to test-drive one of Toyota’s one-man vehicles or see Xerox’s new erasable paper in action, NextFest is heavy on possibility and light on user interaction.

    While that may deter most potential visitors, even the untouchable exhibits have something to offer: the fascinating prospect of tech advancements to come. For starters, there’s the incredible new oil-producing method that uses microalgae to cut what was once a 150 million-year process into an affair of just a few days. Then there’s a cost-effective plastic made entirely of CO2 and limonene, a substance found in citrus peels. A simple plastic cup may not be eye candy, but what it puts forward – the ability to create dinnerware from compost – is truly fascinating.

    The exhibits that don’t focus on conservation are just as exciting. Since the entertainment displays are mostly already in development, they’re more tangible than many of the others. One interactive exhibit showcases a game called Brainball, in which players place a black band around their heads and sit on opposite sides of a table. There’s a tiny rubber ball at the center of the table, and as the headband detects the players’ brain waves, that ball moves away from the person with the more relaxed consciousness. The contestant with more stress loses. It really is a pretty simple idea, but one of the first in what could become a new generation of mental interactivity.

    While the appeal of biodegradable ink cartridges to the average Joe is something that can be debated, it’s safe to say that techies would get a much bigger kick out of most of the exhibits that NextFest has to offer.

    NextFest runs through Sunday, October 12, and is free to the public. If you find yourself in Millennium Park, you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to set aside the 45 minutes it takes to visit all the exhibits. For those with an interest in the environment, robotics, digital entertainment or just the future in general, NextFest is a great place to get an idea of what’s in store.


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