Introduction - The Ins and Outs of TechFestNW
For the past few years, The Tech Buyer’s Guru has covered national and international tech conferences, namely PAX West in Seattle and CES in Las Vegas, but there’s more to the tech story than big-ticket product releases. So we were excited to get a view of tech innovation from the local and regional level, which is what TechFestNW is all about. Held in Portland, Oregon for the past six years, TechFestNW is an opportunity for local companies, both at the startup stage and the operating stage, to share their stories and market their ideas. This year the conference took place at the elegant Portland Art Museum, March 23rd and 24th.
TechFestNW is divided into three distinct showcases: a main stage with talks by major tech innovators, showcases located all around the conference for companies to seek backers, collectively known as PitchFestNW, and a smaller stage where these startups have a chance to give short presentations. We spent some time in all three venues to get a feel for the content being shared, and we’re going to highlight a few of our experiences to give a broad perspective.
But first, the lighter side of TechFestNW:
Being in Portland, this conference has a personality all its own, and that starts with the local-brew beer being offered by Portland-based Lagunitas Brewing Company throughout the talks (not just during party time!), as well as the local showcase for cannabis innovator Prūf Cultivar. Yes, technology is even active in that increasingly-legal market (Oregon voters approved of marijuana for personal use in 2014, allowing the market to really take off).
All right, with those unique elements covered, let’s get back to the main show!
On the Main Stage – Big, Bold Ideas
The conference kicked off with the mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, noting how the tech industry has been truly critical to the growth of Portland and the region. A number of big players have large campuses or are headquartered in the area, including Nike, the freight truck manufacturer Daimler, tech website Digital Trends, and the house rental agency Vacasa, not to mention Intel, of course. Little known fact: Intel’s ground-breaking Nehalem CPU architecture, which underpinned the very first Core i7 series of processors released in 2008, was named after a river just an hour’s drive from Portland!
Among the many talks on the main stage, perhaps the most interesting was given by Eren Aksu, “Chief Opportunity Creator” at the Santa Monica-based Emblematic Group, who shared thoughts on the potential for harnessing augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to bring the public closer to important news items of the day. While AR/VR has primarily been directed towards the entertainment markets, there’s potential to engage the public much more thoroughly than can be done with words, photos, or even video. In the next five years, Aksu believes that AR/VR will move from the individualistic to the social, such that participants can walk around and engage with others in a photo-realistic environment. We asked during the Q&A session whether such technology could have drawbacks, such as causing a form of trauma to viewers of VR war or disaster coverage, and we were informed that standards are being drawn up by the IEEE and the international press corps to deal with this very issue.
Interestingly, one of the booth presenters at the show, Portland-based 360 Labs, which markets VR production services, responded to this inquiry with an example of how VR can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Many wounded soldiers continue to relive their wartime episodes unless they can “get past” the point of injury. Through the power of VR, soldiers injured by roadside bombs have been placed back on the road where they were injured, but in a VR setting, and given the opportunity to drive past the location of the attack and “turn the corner” virtually and figuratively. In a sense, this helps re-map their memories of terrible events, so what sticks in their minds is not the moment of catastrophe, but a vision of making it through.
On a slightly lighter but still important note, 360 Labs is also working closely with a major conservation organization to create a VR tour of the Grand Canyon, with the goal of encouraging the public and policy-makers to preserve the beauty of the area for generations to come. Samples of this effort can be seen on the 360 Labs website. All it takes to enjoy these spectacular VR works is a smart phone and a simple VR headset, like Samsung’s GearVR or even Google’s Cardboard.
Off the Main Stage – Creative Solutions Abound
We spoke to a number of startup companies about their unique product ideas, and were struck by their truly creative solutions to common problems. These startups made up the bulk of the companies represented at the show, and generally were “pitching” for funding, although some were also interested in expanding their customer base.
One such startup was Lulu Bicycles, founded by Damon Alley, who is hoping to bring to market the Lululox bicycle locking device. It secures the components on a bicycle, rather than the frame itself. This unique tech, which is purely mechanical rather than the typical electronic tech we think of today, has a keyed locking device that fits into various components of the bicycle, preventing theft of parts such as handlebars, seats, and wheels. Having been the victim of a theft of our wheel quick releases, we know that bicycle thieves will remove just about anything on a bike that they think has value in the black market! Lulu Bicycles will begin its crowdfunding campaign in May of 2017 and is targeting a price of $60 for each lock.
Another company called Truece is developing an app to assist in the complicated matter of co-parenting, i.e., caring for children when parents have separated. The company’s app will provide a discreet method for communicating where other lines of communication may have broken down, and will also allow older children to engage in joint conversations with both parents where appropriate. Scheduling, monetary considerations, and critical tasks can all be handled and accounted for within the app. We asked whether the company had looked into introducing its tools to families during separation negotiations, as having the app available could very well persuade couples to settle rather than pursue confrontational legal proceedings. Indeed, Truece was planning on attending a family law conference to market the app to divorce lawyers in nearby Washington State just a few weeks after TechFest. Talk about having to cater to divergent audiences! The beta test for the Truece app is set to being sometime in Q2’17.
As always, we strive to bring our readers unique perspectives on the technology industry, and we hope this little taste of TechFestNW has done just that!