SOMETECHFORTHEWEEKEND: Is it possible to move faster than real time? That physics-defying challenge was set for attendees at LeWeb, one of the most important technology events yet seen in the UK. Julian Blake was among the impressed
It can’t be that often that a British prime minister has directly lobbied to ensure that an industry event, about which few outside of that industry can have heard, takes place on these shores. Yet that’s reportedly exactly what happened when the founders of French tech conference LeWeb visited Downing Street last autumn.
Europe’s biggest technology conference has been running on the continent since 2004. Following the face-to-face meeting with David Cameron, Le Web’s co-founders Loic and Geraldine Le Meur agreed to bring their digital roadshow to town this summer. They arrived in London on 19 June, packing Westminster Central Hall for two full days of speeches, presentations, pitches and high-level business networking. And, whether you were there in person, or viewing the live stream on YouTube, you have to say that this was one slick and impressive show.
‘Faster than real time’ was LeWeb’s London theme. “It is clear that our appetite for split-second interaction is insatiable,” explained the organisers. “Not only are new technologies giving us what we crave, the entrepreneurs behind them must exist in this faster-than-real-time world to compete. They must remain laser focused, yet have cat-like reflexes to adapt, pivot – whatever it takes to stay in the game.”
Learning about the array of innovations now at hand, it becomes hard not to be excited by the buzz of it all. Technology, after all, can now reveal the hidden things that we couldn’t see before. Whether this extra information is making us happier as human beings is debatable, as is whether our realities are indeed augmented by all of this new stuff. But what certainly is true is that technological discovery is making quite a lot of people out there very wealthy right now. And quite a few of them were at LeWeb.
Yet LeWeb was no mere commercial trade show. Its intent was grander: to demonstrate how technology is changing our world, irreversibly and forever. The ambition of the event was matched only by its stellar line-up of speakers from the worlds of business, celebrity and politics. Some 1400 delegates from more than 50 countries attended the sell-out affair.
If real time is defined as “occurring immediately”, the innovations on show at LeWeb suggested that, if we can’t actually move faster than immediately, it may be possible to make immediately way more interesting. Whether it is Project Glass, a head-new mounted display from Google that offers a way for you to search for information, watch video and post on social networks without having to fumble with a hand-held device, or Highlight, which broadcasts your location and tells you about the people around you and what you have in common with them, technology is now more than able to add to what we see and know. Watch Highlight founder Paul Davison explain.
Other innovations seen at LeWeb demonstrated how previously inanimate objects can now be brought to life and connected. The multi-sensor Pebble, for instance, allows owners to connect to the internet and run apps from their wristwatch. Its inventors raised an astonishing $10m in pledges in just 30 days from the Kickstarter crowdsourcing website.
Blippar, an image-recognition technology, scooped the LeWeb start-up competition. To “blipp”, the company explains helpfully, means “the action of instantaneously converting anything in the real world into an interactive wow experience”. The “wow” experience seems confined right now to enhancing the presence of brands, say by bringing Justin Bieber’s album cover to life, or being able to watch the new McVitie’s band by pointing your smartphone at a packet of Hobnobs.
Elsewhere, technology was on show that could allow you to hail the nearest black cab or book the closest hotel room at the tap of a thumb on a geo-located smartphone. Both pretty handy apps, even if potentially draining on the wallet.
The big tech companies were there, of course, as well as those who have become big very fast. Google’s Bradley Horowitz explained how the Google+ social platform now has more than 170 million users converted from plain old Google, and that Google+ is all about the company understand its 1 billion-plus users, and what they want. Horowitz also demonstrated Google Hangouts, the fledgling live video conferencing tool that millions of us will soon be using, free of charge.
Underlining the two most important tech trends out there right now, Facebook’s Christian Gallardo told LeWeb that his company’s focus right now is “mobile, mobile, mobile” – and how the London Olympics will be the most social ever – with 900 million people digitally engaged with the Games through Facebook and others.
The dominance of all things social was underlined by the heavy presence of social evangelisers on stage. The founders of YouTube, Digg and Skype joined a future-facing platform, and there were contributions from global contenders SoundCloud, Badoo and Box.
Yet some of the most interesting contributions at LeWeb came from people who weren’t technologists at all. Heading that list was celebrity superchef Jamie Oliver, an early adopter of Instagram with more than 500,000 followers, who welcomed the social photography tool’s “democratisation of creativity”, as well as its ability to help him recruit staff and, yes, show off food.
For an event as much about change as commerce, it was apt that policy people played a prominent role at LeWeb. PM policy advisors Rohan Silva and Jonathan Luff were able to claim credit, alongside tech entrepreneur Brent Hoberman, for helping persuade Cameron to lobby for LeWeb in London, as well as big up the startup cluster out east in Tech City. Later, UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox, the founder of lastminute.com, outlined her work to help connect the 8 million people still not online in the UK through her Go-On-UK initiative.
The last and probably most memorable word at LeWeb came from Alec Ross, the senior advisor for innovation to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Ross described “a massive shift in geo-political power from hierarchies to networks of citizens, facilitated by connection technologies”. He explained how traditional power structures around the world are being disrupted by technology. Revealing his advice to global leaders concerned about the impact of digital, Ross said: “The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak. Do not fight this empowerment of your citizens: harness it. It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive,” he said, “but those most able to adapt to change.”
Technology is not so much moving faster than real time, he suggested, as helping making people’s daily realities move ever faster.