8 must-see TED talks for IT pros

Watch these brief, illuminating talks on everything from gesture-based computing and extreme data visualization to gaming to save the world.

Stephen Wolfram giving a TED talk

If you've been around the Web awhile, you've probably heard of TED conferences. They're events organized by a small New York nonprofit called TED Conferences where audiences get to hear the ideas of illustrious thinkers and speakers from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design (thus the acronym TED).

The talks given at these gatherings have a few distinctions: Many are by noted luminaries and professors, they last less than 20 minutes, and the subject matter is wide and varied, from feeding the world to finding aliens.

TED Talks videos show some of the most intriguing presentations from the many TED events -- the main TED conference held every spring in Long Beach, Calif., the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, England, in July and an ongoing series of local gatherings around the world, collectively known as TEDx events. The TED site rolls out more videos all the time -- there are now more than 700 online.

But who can spend all day watching hundreds of videos, fascinating though they might be?

If you're pressed for time, here are eight amazing talks that every IT pro should watch for their insight into the future of computing. They cover subjects ranging from stunning user interfaces to mind-bending data manipulation and the intersection of wireless technologies and medicine. You'll even find out how video gamers could save the world.

In the discussions of each talk, I've included a reality check from a consumer analyst who studies how ideas actually come to market. While sometimes jazzed about the ideas discussed in the TED presentations, these experts tended to be skeptical about the likelihood that they would show up in real-world applications in the near future. Nevertheless, these talks make fascinating watching for anyone curious about where technology might take us.

John Underkoffler on gesture-based computing

Date: February 2010

Length: 15 minutes, 23 seconds

The concept of gesture controls is not new (they featured prominently in the 2002 movie Minority Report), but in this talk John Underkoffler shows off a complex example of a 3D interface that lets you use your hands to move pictures out of a scene, combine them on a table, or hand them over to a user at a different computer.

In short, he says gesture-based computing allows you to interact with data in ways that just aren't possible with a keyboard and mouse. And here's an interesting tidbit: Underkoffler created the gesture system in the movie.

When I contacted him recently, Underkoffler said his next project is to bring his gesture control system, called G-speak, into the conference room to enhance telepresence systems -- high-end videoconferencing systems that make attendees in different locations feel as if they're all in the same room. According to Underkoffler, G-speak addresses a critical problem of telepresence -- namely, that the video and audio work great for communication but there is no real visceral interaction, which is key for collaboration.

The new system, which he said is running in his lab at Oblong Industries and will debut in the fall, might enable teams that are separated by long distances to toss virtual brochures to each other, grab and rearrange video collections or otherwise manipulate data together. "We've been working with enterprise customers with giant data problems they cannot solve any other way, such as data mining, bioinformatics and financial services," he says.

Reality check: Analyst Jon Peddie at Jon Peddie Research notes that while gesture-based interfaces have a high entertainment value -- it's cool to watch someone wave his hands around to control a computer -- in reality they're not practical for many computing functions, such as flipping through a Web site or editing a Word document. It's just too uncomfortable to hold your arms up for any length of time.

However, he did say that brief gestures could play a key role in controlling home media; you might make a quick motion to open a digital photo album or flick your wrist to advance to the next song.

It's also conceivable that gesture systems could be used not for controlling an entire program or Web site, but for simple household tasks. You could, for example, raise an oven's temperature by raising your hand.

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