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Pop!Stars 2006

Six headliners from this year's conference.

  1. Lifestraw The brainchild of Danish, Dutch, and Israeli designers, Lifestraw is a fat, blue 12-inch drinking straw lined with a system of four separate filters to zap particulates, bacteria, viruses, and parasites. At a cost of about $3.50, it purifies enough drinking water for one person for six months to a year, without electricity, moving parts, or the material waste or transport costs of plastic bottles. Since premiering last year, the Lifestraw has won design awards around the globe and now awaits its full-blown debut in developing countries, where one in six people lack access to clean drinking water. This is just one of 20 world-changing inventions to be presented by Alex Steffen, an international journalist, strategic environmental consultant, and curator of

  2. Stewart Brand You know the first photo of the Earth as seen from space? The one Al Gore says in An Inconvenient Truth is the most published photograph ever? NASA released that image in 1969 because of a national campaign started by Stewart Brand, who has spent his career getting people to think globally. He hung out with the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s, published the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s, cofounded the WELL (the prototype of an online social network) in San Francisco in the 1980s, and in the 1990s started the Long Now Foundation, a term coined by musician Brian Eno to represent a counterpoint to short-term thinking: "The point," writes Brand, "is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time." Brand comes to Pop!Tech to discuss the future of the green movement in the current state of emergency and the adoption of "dangerous ideas" such as genetic engineering and nuclear power.

  3. Roger Brent Not long ago, Roger Brent taught a science novice how to make genetically engineered, weaponized smallpox—with just $29,700 for a second-hand DNA synthesizer and nucleotide base-pair info available free online. Luckily, the head of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, was talking to a science writer, not an Al Qaeda mole. But Brent's point chills: Advances in "DNA-hacking technology" are coming to the point where waging biowar might soon be as easy as putting up a Web page. This year at Pop!Tech, Brent will argue that as technology catches up to the recent proliferation of genomic data on the Internet (what he calls "open-source biotechnology"), gene research and gene therapy will enter a whole new era. Trouble is, the bad guys are on that learning curve too. Brent's day job is the so-called Alpha project, a unique multidisciplinary effort tapping physics and supercomputers to get better measurements of actions within cells, in an effort to deduce clearer laws of biological behavior.

  4. R2 Camera In the 18th century, audiences across Europe and America flocked to see huge cylindrical paintings— 360-degree views of ancient Rome or Napoleon's armies on the steppes. The "panorama" was even patented by an Irish painter in 1787. Today, Clifford Ross, a 54-year-old abstract painter in both the MoMA's and Met's collections, creates analogous visual thrills: Obsessed with photography's precision, he invented the R1 camera in 2004, using a World War II aerial camera, vacuum pumps, mirrors, and a microscope. The R1 takes the highest- resolution photos ever—100 times sharper than the average professional digital camera—and Ross's billion-pixel photos caught the interest not only of the art world but of digital-imaging experts at Cornell and MIT, which led to the next generation. At Pop!Tech, he will unveil the R2, an array of nine digital video cameras, nine mirrors, and nine microphones arranged in a circle to shoot in 360 degrees—and capture 9 GB of data per minute. In fact, Ross is bringing realism to the point of hallucination: His goal is to shoot a cyclorama, a life-size movie in the round.

  5. Transmaterials Fulbright-winning architect Blaine Brownell brings the material world to the virtual, blogging about innovative building materials at His 2005 book, Transmaterials, is not a story of gender-reassignment surgery but a catalog and exploration of some 200 global eco-techno hybrids, an emerging field that has the attention of designers and scientists alike. Some examples:
    • Wood.e Electrified wood: Plug your lamp into your end table.
    • Parans A fiber-optic system that can pipe natural sunlight into any room.
    • Richlite A renewable architectural material made of compressed paper.
    • "Give back curtain" Fabric coated with photoluminescent pigments that shift colors, transforming and emitting light absorbed through a window or from a lamp.
    • Flexicomb A honeycomb-like material made from bunches of drinking straws.
    • Living surfaces Floors and tabletops with layers of pigment that respond to pressure and vibration. "Sensitile" flooring even shifts color as you move.

  6. Fatima Gailani As president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, Gailani is one of Afghanistan's most visible women and community leaders. At Pop!Tech this year, she'll discuss the future of women in Islam. A descendant of the Prophet Muhammed and daughter of a leader of the resistance against the Soviets, she lived in exile in London for 24 years, engaging in both Islamic and secular studies, and acting as a diplomatic courier for her father. She returned home after the fall of the Taliban to take part in the country's constitutional convention. She calls the fate of the women of Afghanistan, their opportunities for education, and their participation in democracy, her "obsession."

A version of this article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.