Philly Tech Week 2014

Every year Philadelphia has a week-long celebration of tech events called Philly Tech Week. Last year my friend Sonia and I had a braille street art table. This year they had around 1300 events. You could not go to everything even if you wanted to. I went on the Chevrolet Innovation Tour, participated on a panel about the aging and the disabled, and went to the inauguration of N3RD Street.

The week began with the Chevrolet Innovation Tour. I found it very funny that Chevrolet sponsored the event, and right below that the page says that transportation will not be provided. Fortunately my friend Sonia helped organize a panel so got the VIP treatment and invited me along. We started at the Comcast accessibility lab. I have come here several times because they host the Philly Accessibility Forum there. Andrew Larkin and his blind boss Tom Lwodkowski demonstrated their spoken interface. Comcast will make the first fully accessible set-top box, and as much as their customer service sucks their accessibility programmers wants to do good work. They also demonstrated eye-tracking technology. It made a great way to start the tour. I already felt inspired.

The VIP treatment meant we got transportation. We took a big comfortable SUV to the nanofabrication lab at Penn. They told us about the work they do with genetics and nanocircuitry. Sonia liked the puppy learning research they do. We then walked in this glass area which overhangs the street. You could feel the slight movements from people walking and the wind.

We decided to switch things up and take a different car this time. We chose a Volt, Chevrolet’s hybrid electric car. We enjoyed learning about it from our driver. The tour took us to Nextfab Studio, a maker space. I just thought they did 3-D printing, but they have machines for doing all kinds of things, such as wood work, metal work, textiles, even a photo room. They can fabricate anything you might need to manufacture a prototype. I felt very excited about this. For a long time I have wanted to make some kind of computer for the blind but have lacked the resources. Now we have a place that does it all right here in the city! I also met the creator of a really cool 3-D printed model of City Hall. We will talk more in the future.

We liked the Volt so much we decided to take it to the final stop on the tour, Indy Hall. It felt good to end up there. Alex talked about the space and they had free beer of course. I felt very satisfied and went home.

The next night I went to the Philly Accessibility Forum, even though it didn’t technically make up part of Philly Tech Week. It rained but I didn’t know that when I stepped outside without my umbrella. I took a cab there and a security guard escorted me to the elevator. He hit the number, then promptly stepped out, leaving me alone as the great glass elevator rocketed upward. I stepped out and heard nothing. You can’t even get to the lab without a pass. I felt around and found the panel. At least that had braille. I took the elevator back down to the lobby, musing on the irony. Someone else brought me back up and admitted me entrance to the hallway with the lab and found the lab and finally I made it to the accessibility forum.

They did a recap of CSUN, the large conference that takes place every year in San Diego. They promoted the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. They will offer certification among other things. I joined the next day. We also bagged on Google. They gave a presentation about the “accessibility” of Google Drive. “What accessibility?” I asked. Apparently they only tested it with their screen reader ChromeVox, which no one uses. This sums things up in a nutshell. They have tunnel vision, only focusing on their own product. Despite the small gathering we all felt glad we had come.

A month or so ago I met a woman whose husband heard me speak at Ignite Philly. She and a few others would do a panel at Philly Tech Week entitled Tapping into the Invisible Consumer Base. This would make part one of three events. After the panel they would have a focus group to find a few problems with technological solutions. This would culminate in the third event, an accessibility hackathon at the end of May. Yes of course I would like to participate!

Wednesday the 9th finally came and I felt excited. I took a cab to the Free Library of Philadelphia 1901 Vine st. “Can I ask you a question?” asked the cabby. “What?” “Do you believe in Jesus?” Why do these people always have to ask me this at 09:00 in the morning when going to do a very down to earth thing like speaking at a panel about technology? I said I considered him a great teacher but of course I knew what she really meant. “Do you want to go to heaven?” she asked. “Doesn’t everyone?” I didn’t feel like telling her that I worship Discordia, the primal goddess of chaos. I also didn’t feel like explaining that rather than hoping for some far off heaven that I would rather concentrate on bringing heaven to earth. She concluded with a few final Jesus-based remarks, and promptly left me at 1801 Vine st. a block off. Perfect. All hail Discordia! A woman who works as a judge helped me to the library. She said she still prefers writing while in court because it keeps her awake and helps her remember.

I showed up to the panel and did some minimal setting up. They had some wonderful food from Neapolitan Bakery. I had a cherry ginger scone and some chai. Very nice. Sonia showed up, as did my friend Meg, and she brought her Google Glass. We have begun talking about some things we can do since it has zero accessibility right now. Today we decided that she would set it on record and I would just wear it, then people could see through my eyes. I did, and several people asked me about the “funny looking glasses” I wore. You can see it for yourself.

The keynote started so we made our way to the auditorium. I went on stage and joined the others, and we had a good general discussion. I really stayed focused on accessibility, bringing things back to down-to-earth solutions. As I have said a lot recently, we have the technology now, we just have to start using it. You can hear the entire panel for yourself.

After it ended Meg asked if I wanted to go to a game demo. I said why not? We also told another guy we would go. Instead we got food at Whole Foods, and had a wonderful lunch sitting under a tree in the parkway. It felt so good and cleansing to sit in the nice weather.

Meg got me a cab and I got in. I got the same woman from earlier. She blasted Christian rock. I contemplated music made to glorify the Creator, but auto-tuned to remove the imperfections from the human voice given to the singer by that creator. I kept my mouth shut. Thankfully she dropped me off at my place without any more problems.

The next night I went to Philly Cocoa’s monthly meeting at the Apple Store. They had a pretty good turnout, and talked about Bluetooth LE, otherwise known as iBeacons. I actually got to touch a few of them. One felt like a plush rubbery polyhedron. It had a basic cubic form but with other shapes, rather hard to describe. Another felt like a key fob. A third plugged into a USB port, and just felt like a little piece of rectangular plastic, very impressive. I had heard about iBeacons for so long, but actually getting to touch one really made it mean something. This reminded me of doing touch tours.

The next day, Friday, I went to the inauguration of N3RD St! They announced it as a barbecue, but actually they had a few food trucks. One sold Mexican food. Another sold cupcakes. A third sold cheese. I met my friend Liz, and we hung out through the whole thing. Meg also showed up with her Glass, and I met many other friends. A lot of us had met on Twitter and met for the first time in real life here. This has definitely gone beyond the walls of Indy hall.

In case you don’t know, Indy Hall and a few other places reside on North 3rd St. or N 3rd St. or N3RD Street. The “3” becomes an “e” in elite-speak, hence Nerd St. We began calling it that last year. I recall Kara Lafleur calling herself the N3RD St. Chef. It just kind of grew and before we knew it everyone just started calling it N3RD Street. City officials even began using the term and finally they officially named it so.

Alex Hillman from Indy Hall and a few others drafted the N3RD Street manifesto. He said that they just added “Whereas” before each line to make it official. He therefore said he would read the manifesto, and ask us to chant “Whereas!” before each line. “This is the nerdiest thing I have ever done!” exclaimed Liz. You could really feel the n3RD in the air! A few officials gave some speeches, they showed one of the signs that just went up on 3rd and Market, and it had happened. We named a part of Philadelphia!

Everyone kept asking Liz and I if we would go to the Philly Tech Week signature event at the Comcast Center. We felt like we had gone back to high school, with all the kids asking if we would go to the big party and not really feeling like it. We almost settled on going to the after party, but still felt unsure as I went home. Instead of going I ended up watching Encounter at Farpoint for the 44389th time. I didn’t care, I had a wonderful Philly Tech Week. Next year they have to make it Philly Tech Month. How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all?