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5 Questions

BIF10 in Review

September 25, 2014          

Episode Summary

In this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the recent BIF10 innovation conference, and some of the notable presentations including: Dan Pink’s new TV show Crowd Source, where social science and design for behavior change meet reality TV, and Rupal Patel’s project at Northeastern University to bring customized speech to the vocally impaired, The Human Voicebank.

Jon:
Welcome to Episode 70 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hey, Jon. You’re looking a little worn-down today. Where have you been, buddy?

Jon:
That’s probably a nice way of putting it, Dirk. I am a little worn-down because I’ve been participating for the past couple days in what I think is one of the more exciting conferences around innovation. It’s called BIF. They just celebrated their 10th anniversary, so this was BIF10. The “BIF” stands for Business Innovation Factory, and the whole thing is run by my friend Saul Kaplan. It’s basically the equivalent of a giant dinner party where you get to see some terrifically intelligent speakers on stage. Afterwards, you actually also get to talk with them on one of the many break sessions about innovation, about design, and about business.

Dirk:
The format is similar to TED or to PopTech. What makes BIF a little bit different because they all have their own personality? What’s special about BIF?

Jon:
I think the BIF community is probably what makes it so special. What I mean by that is there’s an integration of both the speakers who are initially on the stage to get the conversation going and also the audience who … Sometimes, the audience is made up of former speakers. Pretty much anybody you go and talk to at the BIF Conference has an interesting perspective. They’re intelligent, and they’re very open to communicating and connecting with other people. I often say that the BIF community for me feels like what my college experience should have been, which is this intellectual openness, this curiosity. If you look at just for a moment as the speakers being the professors and you’re really having that integration where as a student, you get to talk with them in a casual fashion. There aren’t a lot of barriers to entry for conversation. For instance, I was very honored to talk to Alan Webber who’s the founder of Fast Company. He’s just there as a friend of the community, a friend of Saul’s, a friend of BIF. He did a little bit around the opening ceremony singing Happy Birthday, right? He was just …

Dirk:
Singing Happy … Who was he singing? Who was he serenading, Jon?

Jon:
He was serenading the community, right? They brought out a cake.

Dirk:
For the 10th year?

Jon:
Yeah, for the 10th year.

Dirk:
Okay.

Jon:
He just ran for governor of New Mexico.

Dirk:
Really?

Jon:
Like I said, he founded Fast Company which has always been one of my favorite magazines about innovation and business. It was just very easy to … I just said, “Hi, Alan. How was your run for governor?” He lost in the primary, but I was really proud that I got to meet someone who went … Who was not a politician, “politician”, but went to the political field and tried to spread some good ideas. He talked about that a little bit. I asked him a bunch of questions, but there’s just this level of respect for other people, for connecting with other people. Honestly, I don’t think I can find that level of access anywhere else.

Dirk:
That’s great. It sounds a little like TED used to be for lack of a better way to put it. TED was started by Richard Saul Wurman, who I know a little bit. He has distanced himself from TED. Of course, he sold TED a long time ago, but he’s publicly on record not being thrilled with the direction that TED is going to, very celebrity, very self-congratulatory.

Jon:
Exactly. Yeah.

Dirk:
Wurman now is friends with BIF, and I think he was even there this year talking. Right?

Jon:
Yeah, he was. He was talking about one of his projects, this comparative geography. In particular, the cartography of cities and comparing cities at scale. It’s called Urban Observatory I think, but yes. He was there for a while. He is … Yeah. He is well-connected to that community. I think you put your finger on. It is this maybe what TED was meant to be at the beginning and has since been perverted.

Dirk:
Yeah. With Wurman anointing it as the next thing, the thing he had always envisioned, that’s cool. Especially because he’s someone … I know a lot of the younger listeners might not be as familiar with him other than being an old guy up on stage now. He’s certainly one of the few most important people to design more generally, but also trickling down to user experience in over the last 50 years. He’s just a hugely important and significant figure, and one of course whose influence has gone well beyond just our community. I guess we’ll take a little bit of a detour just for our listeners that if Richard Saul Wurman isn’t someone you’re very familiar with, he’s someone worth learning about in getting to know because he’s a pretty important guy.

Jon:
Yeah. What was so neat about BIF is that you’re at the reception afterwards, and Richard Saul Wurman is hanging out, grabbing a glass of wine or beer, whatever with everybody else. It is a community, and it feels … it not only feels that way, but it’s an honor to be a part of it I think.

Dirk:
The lack of pretension is great. Talk to me about some of the other sessions. What were some meetings or things that you saw that really impressed you and you take away from this here?

Jon:
I’m going to start with the closer, Daniel Pink who you may know from various books like “Drive” or “To Sell is Human”. I like Daniel Pink a lot. I think he’s very interesting take on things from a social science perspective. What makes people work? What makes people do the things they do? He’s actually taking his work to television now working in conjunction with National Geographic Channel. In November, I believe he is going to be releasing a show called Crowd Control. As part of his closing talk at BIF, he showed some snippets from the show and also went into depth about the idea of changing human behavior which has been a topic that was touched on a lot on the show whether it’s in health or otherwise in economic or human interactions.

Changing human behavior is definitely a burgeoning part of the user experience portfolio, and so his talk focused on that. There were some very interesting experiments they did. One of them was I guess … I don’t know people who do this, but I guess people who are not handicapped park in handicapped spots all the time. That’s a big problem which is a rotten problem. Their experiment was around empathy for these people, so the question was, if you knew the person who you were dissing, right, by taking … By parking in the handicapped space, would you not do it?

What they did was they took photographs of some real people in wheelchairs, and they made a little sign that they hung underneath the main handicap symbol, and it just … The message on the sign was basically, “Think of me, keep it free.” Right? Keep the space free. These pictures of just your average people, but they were in wheelchairs. Then, they filmed these spaces for the next week. It was just extremely funny to watch the cars. They pull into the handicap space, right? Then, they immediately back out of it and go park somewhere else.

Dirk:
No kidding.

Jon:
Car after car, after car like … They’re like, “Oh, open space. Pull it in.” Yet, some of them got parked way in, so they got the whole way in. Some of them veered into it, and then realized, “Oh, god. What am I doing?” Then, they interviewed some of the people afterwards. People were saying like, “Yeah. You really are taking a spot from someone who needs it. I was just at a restaurant. I need to walk off these calories anyway, so I parked over there.” I’m like, “How noble of you, sir.” It was a really interesting design and user experience problem that affects people. I thought that was a good way to expose that level of design in social science, the world.

Dirk:
I wonder how much of it is novelty which is to say that the first time that happens, you pull out because it’s a surprise. It’s a little jarring. If it was there every time, the people who already are conditioned to ignore the social expectation of not parking there would then just start ignoring …

Jon:
It’s very possible.

Dirk:
Still interesting.

Jon:
Yeah.

Dirk:
I don’t know what conclusions to draw from the data, but the data is interesting.

Jon:
Yeah. The one other experiment that I think is worth mentioning from Daniel Pink’s talk, they went down to Bourbon Street in New Orleans which has tremendous problems with trash and litter. Obviously, because people are trashed on Bourbon Street, and they can’t put and put to and to together to get their cups into a trashcan. They actually did a gamification technique which I thought was interesting. They created a game that was a quiz show basically. There were three holes in a receptacle marked “A”, “B”, and “C”, and then a large screen which presented the questions with three different answers. If you got the question right by putting your cup …

Dirk:
Trash.

Jon:
Yeah, in one of the holes, then it said, “Congratulations. You got that correct.” They found that, and people were saying, “Oh.” All these drunk people, “Oh, I’m just going to throw my cup in the street, but then I saw this game show, so I tried that.” Of course, weren’t completely motivated by that. They were still dumping stuff. What they did was they had a price which cost you five tickets. For a right, a correct answer, you got three tickets. You’d answer the question correctly, and you’d get three tickets. Then, what they discovered was these drunk people were then going and picking up other people’s trash, so they could get …

Dirk:
More tickets. Yeah.

Jon:
The more tickets to get the trucker hat that said, “I got trashed on Bourbon Street.”

Dirk:
It’s clever, but is this sustainable?

Jon:
Probably not sustainable. It’s probably just good television is what that is. That’s Dan being clever with his experiments and coming up with something extremely funny. It’s always funny to interview drunk people. Radio shows do it all the time because it’s funny.

Dirk:
It’s tricky though, right? Because it’s almost more entertainment than social science at that point. It’s like playing with social science in a way. I don’t know. It is …

Jon:
Some might actually not be thrilled with that, but you’ll have to check it out.

Dirk:
Yeah.

Jon:
It’s in November that it launches.

Dirk:
Okay.

Jon:
Yeah. We’ll withhold judgment until the show comes out in its totality, but I think it’s cool that content providers who I admire are looking at television as a space where they can express some of their ideas. Maybe in a watered-down way, but hey, if you see the show, then you go read one of his books. I think that’s probably a win. I was enamored of that particular talk.

Dirk:
Very cool. Any others that stood out for you?

Jon:
There were quite a few excellent talks. I’m just going to highlight one other on the show today. At Northeastern University, there’s a project called The Human Voicebank. It’s lead by Dr. Patel who was there at the BIF Conference. Essentially, we have fantastic technology for transcribing typed words into speech, but evidence from various studies has shown how our identity is some part wrapped in our individuality in the way we express ourselves through our voice.

The raw text-to-voice programs provide this no matter how good they are. It’s a computerized generic rendering. Even if you have 5, 10, 15, 20, it’s not individual. It’s not for you. It doesn’t sound like you would sound if these people have lost their voices from one reason or another. It doesn’t sound like them. It is not them. It’s a hindrance to communication because people don’t feel like they’re speaking with their own voice. They feel like they’re being translated by this computer.

The purpose behind the human voice project is to solicit donations of voices. You or I could go on a site and read a bunch of texts that over the course of five hours, you would give them enough voice samples that could be cut up and reconstructed into other words. The more you donate, the more complete a voice you’ll be giving them. I think five hours is the minimum. A system like Siri will have hundreds of thousands of hours.

Dirk:
Hundreds of thousands of hours?

Jon:
Yup, apparently.

Dirk:
Wow.

Jon:
Quite a few, but I mean the …

Dirk:
That’s remarkable. I would never have guessed that.

Jon:
Yeah. From the presentation anyway, that seemed to be the number. Perhaps, that’s because … I don’t know if Siri works in multiple languages or it’s probably a lot more comprehensive. The special sauce is once you give this donation, they take a sample from the person themselves. Even if they congest, all they need to do is voice a vowel sound. They use that audio to color the audio donation. They’ll find something close to that person’s age and gender, et cetera, and then they use a vowel sound to color the tonality, the timbre, et cetera. It becomes their custom voice where there’s none other like it in the world.

They had an 18-year-old girl who had been presented with her 18-year-old voice. She had been using another voice program that made her sound like a little kid, and she wanted to sound like an 18-year-old. They showed some video, and she was absolutely delighted to get it. Immediately, I guess started deleting things on her phone, so she could fit the new voice on to her mobile device. I found that to be a particularly inspiring story, especially because it married some great technology with a further understanding of people that I think is so important to have when you’re designing a solution. Like it really I think brought together a lot of important elements to make it possible for a person who has this problem that they need to solve. Now, they can do it in a much more elegant and personal way.

Dirk:
Yeah, very cool.

Jon:
I would highly recommend checking out the BIF Conference next year in 2015. It’s always in September. I believe that they have released the dates for the next conference already. Check out the Business Innovation Factory, and I hope to see you there.

Dirk:
Cool.

Jon:
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. It’s just one “L” on the “digitalife”, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich-information resource. Take advantage while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O-.com. Dirk.

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer. That’s @-D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Email me, Dirk@knemeyer.com, or read me, dirk.knemeyer.com.

Jon:
That’s it for Episode 70 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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