March 26, 2007 5:37 PM PDT

Hackers, designers talk tech's future at ETech

Technology is so embedded in many people's lives that it can be hard to step back and recognize the small shifts in the world brought about by adoption of new applications or gadgets.

But that's what organizers of the O'Reilly ETech conference hope to examine this week at the sixth annual gathering on emerging technology. The confab, which is held for four days in San Diego, draws just more than 1,000 technologists, including game designers, hackers and Web executives. Speakers this year include Apple designer Ron Brinkmann, Google's map software engineer Barry Brumitt, and Palm founder Jeff Hawkins, who will talk about his newest venture in artificially intelligent computing.

"We're featuring individuals who are innovating in slight changes in the use of technology," said Rael Dornfest, program chair of ETech and former chief technical officer of O'Reilly Media. "A lot of what we will see in the next year or two are these ongoing plate tectonics, rather than massive sea change in technology. There in lies the magic."

To be sure, ETech's agenda is set up to look at technologies and related trends that are a couple of years in the offing.

For example, last year's conference focused on attention, or trying to gain people's attention, in a media-saturated world. Following up on that theme, Seth Goldstein, founder of the nonprofit Attention Trust, on Monday demonstrated a new Web application that lets people peer into the minds of others online via "clickstream" data. (Clickstream data is a record of sites visited.) Called AttenTV, the downloadable application enables people to subscribe to the clickstream data of another person (who's also a subscriber) like they would a TV channel, or they can be watched themselves.

"AttenTV is The Truman Show for the attention economy," according to the Web site. "As you spend more time online, your clickstream increasingly represents who you are and what you are interested in. AttenTV turns one person's clickstream data into another person's entertainment."

The application is only available for Mac users.

Dornfest said that the technology industry today is undergoing small shifts in perspective, brought on by advances or new uses of old technology. For example, people at the conference will be talking about moving from the use of the Flash programming language to Adobe's Apollo, along with Ajax, to create embedded applications on the desktop, he said.

"Little innovations that make a big difference are more interesting than some of the big product announcements," he said.

Other talks at this year's ETech will include one from Marc Hedlund, founder and chief product officer at personal finance upstart Wesabe and former founder of Lucas Online, the Internet subsidiary of Lucasfilm. His talk will focus on how to develop Web 2.0 applications that protect people's privacy, given that Wesabe aims to collate and manage people's personal finances in a secure site.

Jane McGonigal, lead game designer for the Institute for the Future plans to talk about how collaborative, reality-based games are tackling societal issues. Brinkmann, a designer for Apple (who developed graphics software Shake), will discuss how high-end computer graphics are infiltrating our daily lives and will likely transform sites like YouTube.

Evening festivities include Makefest, a science fair-style event featuring robot dogs and marshmallow blow gun fights, back for a third year. And attendees can try their hand at group play Wednesday night in a game called Werewolf. The game requires players to take on prescribed roles and then figure out who's bluffing.

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