Michael Bergeron
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SXSW 2016: Robotic Edition

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Every year at SXSW, celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2016, there’s an unknown known that pops up in the midst of multiple screenings and interviews and the general walking and talking.

I was on my way to see The Tower at the State Theatre at 11 am. on Sunday, March 13 when I ducked into the IBM house thinking I would do a few minutes on one of their virtual reality exercise bike set-ups and then hightail it to the movie. The visit turned into an hour-long journey through a brave new world.

IBM turned the Vince Young Steakhouse (at East 3rd and San Jacinto Blvd) into a dedicated site of robots and interactive exhibits.12829439_10153597050050958_3703793502137052304_o

First of all the VR exercise bike will change the way you work out. When you put on the goggles and headset and feel yourself propelling down a hill at 35 m.p.h. you know that you’re on a stationary workout device yet your brain is tricked into the reality of an imagined situation. You feel the motion as if you were on a bicycle hurling down an idyllic path. Another simulation has the virtual rider going north on Congress toward the State Capitol.

When you enter the building you are asked a series of questions that determine what your experience will be. Basically are you a Millennial or Generation X or one of the oldsters that populate the world’s largest convention. This one fact can be easily ascertained by naming what kind of phone you grew up with.

For instance, based on my taste for alcohol (never before dark) and sour and sweet (more alkaline that acid) the house had a custom bar that made me the following blend: Ginger Ale, Mint, Cayenne Pepper, Pineapple and Lime Juice.rrrrr

After my VR bike ride I was introduced to Dave Haase who was busy on a bike two bikes down. Haase is known for his ultraendurance bike riding. On a stationary exercise bike outfitted with a video screen that depicts an accurate topographical outlay, Haase is able to peddle across the United States. It takes him eight days to go 3000 miles. Haase, on a liquid diet, burns 315 calories an hour, and rides 23 hours a day, sleeping one hour. Haase is 48 years old.

A team of experts monitor Haase during his rides and an ingested pill monitors and transmits his core body temperature. This bit of athletic excellence only brought my measly sweat to a stand off. Here’s a guy who walks the walk and, ah, pedals the pedal.

bb34444The building has an interactive art wall of sorts where people stick and paste giant post-it notes. IBM now owns the Weather Channel so there was a room with a live weather display.

Another area had robots that played games with humans. “Okay human I don’t know how you’re cheating,” intones the mini robot that handed me my ass at a game of rock paper scissors.

Yet a different line offered an emotive headset that actually looks like a thin crown that when placed on your head connects your brain’s electrical impulses to a computer. Said computer uses your thoughts to move a BB-8 toy in any direction you desire. Frankly as cool as this demo was the wait was long due to constant rebooting of the laptop computers that were running the application.

How ironic that a film playing at SXSW, Silicon Cowboys, tells the story of how Compaq computers overtook IBM in the late ‘80s. Now IBM has Watson, a robotic entity that will thrust your life into a cognitive era that your intelligence will have to start jogging just to keep up with the concept.

— Michael Bergeron