WIRED NextFest 2006

A ballroom dancer, a spaceship, and a robot bartender. What do these three things all have in common? They’re on display currently at Wired Magazine’s NextFest event. What is NextFest you ask? It’s a showcase of emerging technology that could one day change the world we live in.

The show features over 130 exhibits and is being held this year in New York at the Jacob Javits Center for three days. The event also has guest speakers, panels, and live demonstrations of some of the coolest geek-related stuff around. We went and covered the highlights of the show so you won’t miss out if you didn’t get a chance to stop in this year. Here are some of our personal favorites:

Partner Ballroom Dance Robots
Although these robots have a pretty weird look to them and could be waiting to kill the next John Connor, they still love to dance. The folks at Tohoku University have spent nearly $300,000 on developing these robots that are able to ballroom dance like humans. They can match your lead, anticipate steps, and even take a bow at the end. Other practical applications of the robot include assisting the elderly and helping people in hospitals with walking.

Ballroom Dancer
Ballroom Dancer 

Paro
No matter how macho you think you are, even the toughest dude will fall for Paro. Modeled after a baby harp seal, this lovable guy has sensors placed all over his body so that he can interact in different ways. Play with his whiskers and he’ll let out a playful sound. Bop him on the head and he’ll frown with sadness. Don’t call him a Furby though; Paro is designed to help out in nursing homes to reduce stress among residents. After spending just five minutes with Paro, we felt a lot giddier inside – no really, we did.

Paro
Paro the baby seal

Hanson Robotics
Einstein is back and ready to bust a move thanks to Hanson Robotics. The company has developed amazing lifelike facial features that could one-day fool someone between knowing a human from an android. The skin is crafted out of a patented polymer called “frubber”, which is what makes their robots appear so real. Also on display was a guy named Alex. Alex looked and appeared so real, many onlookers could not tell if he was a robot at first. Take a quick glance at the picture below and decide for yourself.

Albert Robotica
Albert Robotica

Arm Wrestle?
Arm Wrestle?

E-TAF Automatic Door
Sci-Fi fans will absolutely love this showcase. When was the last time you even said, “That door looks so cool!”? You now can thanks toE-TAF’s automatic door technology. Slowly walk up to the door and it automatically opens for you. But wait! It opens sliding pillars to your exact body proportions and then seals them back shut. This means if you’re shorter, the top part of the door won’t open. They say the unique design conserves energy and keeps debris out easily due to the air-tight pillars. All you need now is a captain’s chair and you’re in geek-heaven.

E-TAF Door
E-TAF Door

Kick Ass Kung-Fu
The next time you’re feeling angry or mad, you may want to perform some sweet karate moves on Bruce Lee. Animaatiokone Industries has developed a setup where players can move around on a blue screen as if they were actually in a 2-D fighting game. Players then have to try to defeat the enemies on screen by performing actual martial arts moves with their bodies. Enemies include Bruce Lee, the Devil, and George W. Bush. If you excel in gymnastics, you can even do back flips to avoid attacks. This could very well be a brand new form of gaming.

Virtual Kung-Fu
Virtual Kung-Fu

Sound Flakes
One of the most interesting exhibits had to be Tokyo Denki University’s Sound Flakes. Basically, a large basin of water has multiple colored-faucets surrounding it. Turn them on and small, fun images “drop” into the water via an overhead projector. It looks as if there are actual objects in the water though. Using a special ladle, you can pick them up and interact with the objects as if they were really there. Slowly drop water into the basin to create fun sounds and tunes. A great application for allowing young kids (and big ones too) to interact with music at an early age. This was a load of fun for everyone that came to see it.

Sound Flakes
Sound Flakes

Brain Ball
Ready, Set, Relax! Brainball is a totally new concept of sports. Two players sit at opposing ends of the table and strap on a headband that detects the player’s brainwaves. Players then have to roll a ball on the table over to their designated spot by becoming relaxed. The more relaxed you become, the quicker you win. Those with high stress levels are probably doomed to never become gold-medal athletes in the exciting game of Brainball.

Brain Ball
Brain Ball

Nabaz’tag at the Atari Theater
What could this cute little white thing with ears be? Try a Wi-Fi enabled Rabbit who can read back messages to you and emit emotions through light. Named Nabaz’tag, the little white bunny can move his ears around, blink lights, and read back messages you send him via e-mail. Atari programmed 100 of them to play an original opera back to the audience in synchronicity. Nabaz’tag already has a huge cult following in Europe, but look for him to slowly start storming the lower 48 next year!

Nabaz'tag
Take us to your leader!

The Hug Shirt
Developed by Cutecircuit, the Hug Shirt is an interesting piece of technology. Using Bluetooth-enabled shirts and cellphones running a Java-based application, 2 users can interact with each other by hugging themselves, which then will transmit the data to the other person wearing the shirt. Great for long distance couples, Hug Shirt could be a breakthrough in the way we communicate with our loved ones no matter where they are on Earth.

Squeeze me!
Squeeze me!

SpaceshipTwo
The sequel to the award-winning SpaceshipOne project, this vessel is designed for flights into space for tourists. Sir Richard Branson’s company Virgin plans to offer trips into space for those willing to shell out $200,000. The flights will carry passengers up to space to let them experience 4G-action at its best. Passengers will then be able to float around and enjoy some breathtaking views before plummeting back down to earth at 7Gs. Flights are scheduled to begin in 2008 after approval is cleared. Keep in mind this is a suborbital ship, so it won’t be taking you to Mars or Jupiter anytime soon!

SpaceShip Two
SpaceShip Two

Juke Bots
Straight out of Germany with the best techno ready to play, these 2 robotic arms can spin records with amazing precision. They automatically can select a record, put it on, and can manipulate the needle in ways not even humanly possible. Though the scratching may not be as organic as most of their human counterparts, theirs is dead-on precise. They can spin 4/4 beats forward and backwards so exact, you won’t be able to tell which way the song is supposed to play. Using two at the same time would enable wonderful remixes of songs to come out of these bots.

Juke Bot
Are you clubbing?

Robot Bartender
Hey robot, pour me a rum and Coke! Normally people would give you a weird look for shouting this, but not at NextFest. This robotic bartender can mix up both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for any sort of occasion. You can even choose whether you want its LCD-head to be male or female. This robot has already been integrated into a few bars and surely will be used more thanks to low operating costs. The best part? He’ll never call in sick with a hangover.

Wired’s NextFest is an amazing showcase of technology that should not be missed by anyone. Don’t forget that the aforementioned are just some of the exhibits present at the event. Overall there are more than 130 things to see, interact with, and enjoy. Everyone who goes is guaranteed to find at least one piece of technology they’ll like. Who knows, maybe you’ll even fall in love with a robot there…it’s certainly possible.

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