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.

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Pranav Mistry on a gesture-based interface that goes everywhere

Date: November 2009

Length: 11 minutes, 21 seconds, plus Q&A (2 minutes, 30 seconds)

Imagine playing a game by projecting an image from your own body onto a wall. Or using a wristwatch that's actually just a virtual representation you can easily customize. Or taking photos by closing your fingers together in a square as you walk around town, and then viewing a gallery of your shots on any wall. Or grabbing data such as a pie chart from a spreadsheet and dropping it into a report -- but on paper, not on-screen.

That's the idea with Pranav Mistry's SixthSense control interface. A proof-of-concept system that in his demo consists of a camera he wears on a harness around his neck and sensors that he wears on his fingers, the SixthSense control interface is quite astounding: It turns any surface into a computing interface you can access with finger and arm movements. [Related story: "Future shock: the PC of 2019"]

In his talk, which drew wild applause on several occasions, Mistry says the control interface will close the gap (what he calls "the digital divide") between the physical and virtual worlds.

Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology.© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

I asked Mistry, a Ph.D. student at MIT's Media Lab, if SixthSense has realized any advances since the demo. "We have lots of changes. One of the key problems and issues was having markers in your hand so the software would understand the movements of my hand," says Mistry. "We are now using a different camera that does not need the markers. In five years, the camera could be a big button you put on a coat."

Mistry says his team is also working on making the software more robust in hopes of taking it to market. "We might make this open source," he adds.

Reality check: Of course, showing an interface like this is a long way from actually turning it into a marketable product. As Enderle points out, even Steve Jobs would have trouble marketing it.

"The problem is there are other things in the market which are 'good enough' and less over-the-top geeky," says Enderle. "An iPad can actually provide an acceptable level of similar value without projecting things on walls or on people, which comes across as too intrusive."

But Mistry remains confident. "This is not the next step in a transition; it shows where [the technology] can go," he says. "We have many people such as doctors interested in using this."

Eric Topol on wireless technology in medicine

Date: October 2009

Length: 16 minutes, 59 seconds

In recent years, the idea that any object -- your alarm clock, your television, your car -- can connect to the Web started becoming a reality. We know that in the future just about every gadget will be connected to the Internet. Yet there is one last frontier for a Web-connected device: your own body.

Eric Topol, the director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif., explains how wireless medical devices will help us monitor our vital signs continuously, much like doctors use smartphones to check on patients in intensive care units today.

Taking an occasional sample can miss important readings, he says, but getting that data continuously and feeding it to caregivers or physicians in real time via the Internet can provide early warnings of trouble, particularly for patients with chronic conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, diabetes or heart disease. [Related story: "Smartphone app would constantly monitor epilepsy patients"]

Such devices open up a whole new realm of medical diagnosis and treatment, and they will keep more people out of the hospital, Topol says. They could also play a role in preventive care; they could, for example, be used to monitor caloric intake, exercise and sleep patterns.

Eric Topol: The wireless future of medicine.© TED Conferences LLC, distributed under Creative Commons license.

Reality check: Peddie wonders about how all this medical data will be processed. He speculates that a Google or a Microsoft with deep pockets would be needed to really bring the idea to fruition.

Such technology would also raise questions and concerns about privacy, but we might be conditioned to accept those kinds of trade-offs soon. "The idea of an OnStar-like service for the human body has been covered in science fiction for decades," says Enderle. "Concerns about privacy and misuse are preventing a more aggressive near-term adoption, but I think by the end of the decade this kind of thing will be commonplace."

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