At TED, It's All About the Touchable

An emerging theme of the TED conference, which started today in Long Beach, CA, is the value of the tactile & embodied. Virtual reality has become a commodity; real reality is at a premium.

"People will always need to touch, feel, & experience," says Michael Ventura, the CEO of Sub Rosa, the interactive agency creating the mega-versions of trade show booths by the likes of Pepsi, Gucci, and GE. "Images on a screen can only take you so far."

The point is brought home not only by the hundreds of A-list flesh-and-blood attendees (I've spotted Bill Gates, Dean Kamen, Caterina Fake & Stephen Wolfram so far) who are still, by and large, exchanging paper business cards; but by displays like GE's new Lunar InBody physical scanner, taking the weight and body composition of TED attendees (currently averaging a svelte 23.6 BMI, several points below the US average); a 3-D printer made by an Israeli company that can turn out parts made of two different materials; and Autodesk's Maya (above). As a live scanning electron microscope display shows, the 3-D animation software is giving scientists new capabilities to design living things at the nano level using strands of DNA. Shawn Douglas at the WYSS Institute at Harvard is using it to create new cancer-fighting compounds; the winners of last year's iGEM competition at MIT, a student science fair for synthetic biology, used it to fashion a "novel cell" that can "significantly increase the speed, efficiency, or direction of a particular biosynthetic reaction."

As Autodesk's principal researcher Brian Pene puts it, they're applying the designer's credo of Scan-Modify-Print to everything from titanium skull reconstructions to fancy sneakers.

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