EmTech Conference Attracts 900, Features Cutting-Edge Products

Did you notice the swarm of people in suits taking over Kresge Lawn with their huge white tent and fancy LCD name tags?

Over 900 conference guests spent the past three days between that tent, Kresge Auditorium, and W20 discussing emerging technologies at the eighth annual EmTech conference, hosted by Technology Review, MIT’s magazine focused in technology innovation.

And the LCD screens attached to the name tags? They were the displays of mini-computers that stored people’s contacts. Based on technology developed at the Media Lab, the tags let people who met at the conference mutually exchange contacts by both pressing a button on the device. After the conference, guests could retrieve their list of collected contacts via an online spreadsheet.

The conference did in fact involve a storm of networking. People at the conference attended speeches, panels, and discussions on prominent topics in technology today, from personal genomics to predictive software. Featured speakers included Rich Miner, the group manager of mobile platforms at Google and co-founder of Android, Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, and Sophie V. Vandebroek, the chief technology officer at Xerox.

Tuesday, the first day of the conference, focused on women in technology. On Wednesday evening, the conference was in full swing, with an emerging technologies showcase and reception in the tent. Representatives from start-ups and tech-giants alike were demonstrating their new ideas to conference attendees.

The tent was abuzz with Web 2.0 catchphrases — cloud computing, software as a service, the semantic web, and social networking.

Many of the larger companies had invested their R&D efforts in cloud computing, which allows users to run programs and store data remotely via the Internet.

IBM, for example, showcased its new suite of business applications under the working name “Bluehouse.” Currently in a managed beta version, Bluehouse serves these applications and hosts users’ storage in its own data centers. They plan to officially launch the product in 2009., best known for its e-commerce, is now heavily investing in a cloud computing and site-hosting service for web developers. Though company representatives discussed their concept with conference attendees at the showcase, they declined to speak to the press.

Start-up companies’ demos and concepts varied widely. For some, the conference was their first time presenting themselves to the technology industry at large.

One group of Sloan School graduates had founded a company called Ignite Analytics and featured a program that performs sales analytics for businesses without their own analysts. They were demoing a part of their software that creates an e-mail campaign based on an analysis of sales data that predicts which customers are more likely to buy a product after receiving an e-mail advertisement.

A pair of recent MIT graduates represented their start-up, IntAct Labs. They are hoping to profit off their patented microbial fuel cells that convert waste to electricity, a concept conceived during their undergraduate years at MIT. Matthew R. Silver G, one of the pair, said that they were looking to build a power plant based on their technology.

Representatives of Calais, a Reuters-owned company, presented their technology that analyzes text for meaning. The presenter explained that Calais hoped to circumvent the issue of lack of standard metadata representation on the web by pulling out facts straight from text.

People attended the conference to learn more about emerging technologies in industry, most often on behalf of their own companies and organizations.

Nancy Forbes, who works for a private Army contractor, attended to learn about new technologies that might interest the Department of Defense. Explaining that such an endeavor was not so unusual for the Army, she said, “I think the Department of Defense is one of the most innovative [departments] in the government.”

The crowd also included many representatives from Technology Review’s international offices who were reporting on the conference for international editions of the magazine.

Anthony Fitzgerald, who came from the London office, said he was the only person who has attended all eight EmTech conferences. He said that this year’s conference was “as good as any” in its representation of cutting-edge technology and that, in general, the conferences had become “more polished” over the years.