In Case You Missed It: Highlights from TED2019

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Twelve mainstage sessions, two rocking sessions of talks from TED Fellows, a special session of TED Unplugged, a live podcast recording and much more amounted to an unforgettable week at TED2019. (Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED)

If we learned anything at TED2019, it’s that life doesn’t fit into simple narratives, and that there are no simple answers to the big problems we’re facing. But we can use those problems, our discomfort and even our anger to find the energy to make change.

Twelve mainstage sessions, two rocking sessions of talks from TED Fellows, a special session of TED Unplugged, a live podcast recording and much more amounted to an unforgettable week. Any attempt to summarize it all will be woefully incomplete, but here’s a try.

What happened to the internet? Once a place of so much promise, now a source of so much division. Journalist Carole Cadwalldr opened the conference with an electrifying talk on Facebook’s role in Brexit — and how the same players were involved in 2016 US presidential election. She traced the contours of the growing threat social media poses to democracy and calls out the “gods of Silicon Valley,” naming names — one of whom, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, sat down to talk with TED’s Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers the following day. Dorsey acknowledged problems with harassment on the platform and explained some of the work his team is doing to make it better.

Hannah Gadsby broke comedy. Her words, not ours, and she makes a compelling case in one of the most talked-about moments of the conference. Look for her talk release on April 29.

Humanity strikes back! Eight huge Audacious Project–supported ideas launched at TED this year. From a groundbreaking project at the Center for Policing Equity to work with police and communities and to collect data on police behavior and set goals to make it more fair … to a new effort to sequester carbon in soil … and more, you can help support these projects and change the world for good.

10 years of TED Fellows. Celebrating a decade of the program in two sessions of exuberant talks, the TED Fellows showed some wow moments, including Brandon Clifford‘s discovery of how to make multi-ton stones “dance,” Arnav Kapur‘s wearable device that allows for silent speech and Skylar Tibbits‘s giant canvas bladders that might save sinking islands. At the same time, they reminded us some of the pain that can exist behind breakthroughs, with Brandon Anderson speaking poignantly about the loss of his life partner during a routine traffic stop — which inspired him to develop a first-of-its-kind platform to report police conduct — and Erika Hamden opening up about her team’s failures in building FIREBall, a UV telescope that can observe extremely faint light from huge clouds of hydrogen gas in and around galaxies.

Connection is a superpower. If you haven’t heard of the blockbuster megahit Crazy Rich Asians, then, well, it’s possible you’re living under a large rock. Whether or not you saw it, the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, has a TED Talk about connection — to his family, his culture, to film and technology — that goes far beyond the movie. The theme of connection rang throughout the conference: from Priya Parker’s three easy steps to turn our everyday get-togethers into meaningful and transformative gatherings to Barbara J. King’s heartbreaking examples of grief in the animal kingdom to Sarah Kay’s epic opening poem about the universe — and our place in it.

Meet Digital Doug. TED takes tech seriously, and Doug Roble took us up on it, debuting his team’s breakthrough motion capture tech, which renders a 3D likeness (known as Digital Doug) in real time — down to Roble’s facial expressions, pores and wrinkles. The demo felt like one of those shifts, where you see what the future’s going to look like. Outside the theater, attendees got a chance to interact with Digital Doug in VR, talking on a virtual TED stage with Roble (who is actually in another room close by, responding to the “digital you” in real time).

New hope for political leadership. There was no shortage of calls to fix the broken, leaderless systems at the top of world governments throughout the conference. The optimists in the room won out during Michael Tubbs’s epic talk about building new civic structures. The mayor of Stockton, California (and the youngest ever of a city with more than 100,000 people), Tubbs shared his vision for governing strategies that recognize systems that place people in compromised situations — and that view impoverished and violent communities with compassion. “When we see someone different from us, they should not reflect our fears, our anxieties, our insecurities, the prejudices we have been taught, our biases. We should see ourselves. We should see our common humanity.”

Exploring the final frontier. A surprise appearance from Sheperd Doeleman, head of the Event Horizon Telescope — whose work produced the historic, first-ever image of a black hole that made waves last week — sent the conference deep into space, and it never really came back. Astrophysicist Juna Kollmeier, head of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, shared her work mapping the observable universe — a feat, she says, that we’ll complete in just 40 years.  “Think about it. We’ve gone from arranging clamshells to general relativity in a few thousand years,” she says. “If we hang on 40 more, we can map all the galaxies.” And in the Fellows talks, Moriba Jah, a space environmentalist and inventor of the orbital garbage monitoring software AstriaGraph, showed how space has a garbage problem. Around half a million objects, some as small as a speck of paint, orbit the Earth — and there’s no consensus on what’s in orbit or where.

Go to sleep. A lack of sleep can lead to more than drowsiness and irritability. Matt Walker shared how it can be deadly as well, leading to an increased risk of Parkinson’s, cancer, heart attacks and more. “Sleep is the Swiss army knife of health,” he says, “It’s not an optional lifestyle luxury. Sleep is a non-negotiable biological necessity. It is your life support system, and it is mother nature’s best effort yet at immortality.”

The amazing group of speakers who shared their world-changing ideas on the mainstage at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, April 15 – 19, 2019 in Vancouver, BC, Canada. (Photo: Bret Hartman / TED)

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In Case You Missed It: Highlights from day 4 of TED2019

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Legendary stage designer Es Devlin takes us on a tour of the mind-blowing sets she’s created for Beyoncé, Adele, U2 and others. She speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, on April 18, 2019 in Vancouver, BC, Canada. (Photo: Bret Hartman / TED)

Day 4 of TED2019 played on some of the more powerful forces in the world: mystery, play, connection, wonder and awe. Some themes and takeaways from a jam-packed day:

Sleep is the Swiss Army knife of health. The less you sleep, the shorter your life expectancy and the higher your chance of getting a life-threatening illness like Alzheimer’s or cancer, says sleep scientist Matt Walker. It’s all about the deep sleep brain waves, Walker says: those tiny pulses of electrical activity that transfer memories from the brain’s short-term, vulnerable area into long-term storage. He shares some crazy stats about a global experiment performed on 1.6 billion people across 70 countries twice a year, known to us all as daylight savings time. In the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, we see a 24 percent increase in heart attacks that following day, Walker says. In the autumn, when we gain an hour of sleep, we see a 21 percent reduction in heart attacks.

Video games are the most important technological change happening in the world right now. Just look at the scale: a full third of the world’s population (2.6 billion people) find the time to game, plugging into massive networks of interaction, says entrepreneur Herman Narula. These networks let people exercise a social muscle they might not otherwise exercise. While social media can amplify our differences, could games create a space for us to empathize? That’s what is happening on Twitch, says cofounder Emmett Shear. With 15 million daily active users, Twitch lets viewers watch and comment on livestreamed games, turning them into multiplayer entertainment. Video games are a modern version of communal storytelling, says Shear, with audiences both participating and viewing as they sit around their “virtual campfires.”

We’re heading for a nutrition crisis. Plants love to eat CO2, and we’re giving them a lot more of it lately. But as Kristie Ebi shows, there’s a hidden, terrifying consequence — the nutritional quality of plants is decreasing, reducing levels of protein, vitamins and nutrients that humans need. Bottom line: the rice, wheat and potatoes our grandparents ate might have contained more nutrition than our kids’ food will. Asmeret Asefaw Berhe studies the soil where our food grows — “it’s just a thin veil that covers the surface of land, but it has the power to shape our planet’s destiny,” she says. In a Q&A with Ebi, Berhe connects the dots between soil and nutrition: “There are 13 nutrients that plants get only from soil. They’re created from soil weathering, and that’s a very slow process.” CO2 is easier for plants to consume — it’s basically plant junk food.  

Tech that folds and moves. Controlling the slides in his talk with the swipe on the arm of his jean jacket, inventor Ivan Poupyrev shows how, with a bit of collaboration, we can design literally anything to be plugged into the internet — blending digital interactivity with everyday analog objects like clothing. “We are walking around with supercomputers in our pockets. But we’re stuck in the screens with our faces? That’s not the future I imagine.” Some news: Poupryev announced from stage that his wearables platform will soon be made available freely to other creators, to make of it what they will. Meanwhile Jamie Paik shows folding origami robots — call them “robogami” — that morph and change to respond to what we’re asking them to do. “These robots will no longer look like the characters from the movies,” she says. “Instead, they will be whatever you want them to be.”

Inside the minds of creators. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt has gotten more than his fair share of attention in his acting career (in which, oddly, he’s played two TED speakers: tightrope walker Philippe Petit and whistleblower Edward Snowden). But as life has morphed on social media, he’s found that there’s a more powerful force than getting attention: giving it. Paying attention is the real essence of creativity, he says — and we should do more of it. Legendary stage designer Es Devlin picks up on that theme of connection, taking us on a tour of the mind-blowing sets she’s created for Beyoncé, Adele, U2 and others; her work is aimed at fostering lasting connections and deep empathy in her audience. As she quotes E.M. Forster: “Only connect!”

We can map the universe — the whole universe. On our current trajectory, we’ll map every large galaxy in the observable universe by 2060, says astrophysicist Juna Kollmeier, head of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). “Think about it. We’ve gone from arranging clamshells to general relativity to SDSS in a few thousand years,” she says, tracing humanity’s rise in a sentence. “If we hang on 40 more, we can map all the galaxies.” It’s a truly epic proposition — and it’s also our destiny as a species whose calling card is to figure things out.

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Anyone can be an underwater explorer: Trident underwater drone at TED2019

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TED Fellow and maker David Lang, at right, helps attendees navigate Monterey Bay through the eyes of a Trident underwater drone. Check out the starfish! (Photo: Dian Lofton / TED)

It’s a foggy day in Vancouver — dense, white clouds hang over the North Shore Mountains, just barely visible through the high glass walls of Vancouver Convention Center. A light rain falls. But in Oahu, Hawaii, it’s sunny, bright and clear. The connection? At TED2019, the Trident underwater drone patrols the water in Oahu, and attendees are at the wheel.

Created by TED Fellow and maker David Lang (watch the 2013 TED Talk where he shared the kernel of this idea), the Trident offers what used to be reserved only for those with access to multimillion-dollar submersibles: the ability to capture one-of-a-kind underwater videos, anywhere in the world.

“Our mission is to democratize the ocean and make it more accessible,” Lang says. “We’re at TED to show the progress we’ve made — and what’s becoming possible.”

Through the Science Exploration Education (S.E.E.) initiative, anyone can get their hands on one of the drones, empowering citizen scientists, educators, nonprofits, researchers and students to monitor and protect marine environments. Apply for one through National Geographic’s Open Explorer program.

Charles Cross pilots a Trident underwater drone in real-time, giving one attendee a glimpse at underwater worlds in Monterey Bay, Indonesia and Oahu, Hawaii. (Photo: Dian Lofton / TED)

Controlling the Trident drone feels a lot like playing a video game — if the video game was live, underwater and happening thousands of miles away.

The 1080p feed from the drones projected onscreen creates the experience of swimming through the water. Connected by a tether to a boat where an operator waits, the Trident is powered by two propellers and swims like a fish, diving down to depths of up to 100 meters, with up to three hours of dive time and a top speed of two meters per second.

Throughout the week, attendees used Tridents throughout the world to explore kelp fields in Monterey Bay, meet reef fish in Indonesia and even glimpse a sea turtle in Oahu. Beyond the transportive ideas shared on stage, it’s spaces like these that make TED special.

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Bigger than us: The art on screen at TED2019

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The stage visuals for the Knowledge session.

The TED2019 theme, Bigger Than Us, promises to be larger than life — big ideas, monumental insights, out-of-this-world discoveries, and more! — so naturally, the session art must deliver that sense of awe too, and does.

Colours & Shapes, a Vancouver-based design firm, has created larger-than-life environments for TED since the conference moved to its custom-built Vancouver theater in 2014. Their immersive and transportive designs, splashed across three massive screens, whisk TEDsters away to rich, hyper-visual playgrounds.

We caught up with them this year to learn about what happened behind the screens.

Q: Take me through the creative process, from receiving the prompts to fruition.

This year took shape in a unique way. We were tasked with not only creating all of the session environments, speaker bumpers and conference opener but to redesign the stage from the ground up. This was an opportunity to rethink the TED stage, leaning into the themes for this year and how to create a powerful experience for each person in the theater.

The TED team had a desire to do something really big with video and extending the visual canvas across the entire stage. All the moving parts and technical factors play into what is possible within a custom-designed theater with multiple performance acts, specific broadcast needs and more. We really wanted to bring more depth and dimension to the stage; we knew we had our work cut out for us.

The process is always very collaborative with the whole TED team to find just the right look to elevate and support each session. The magic really starts to appear when we get to the point where we can translate early concepts to actual looks in the theatre — when stage design and artwork come together to create a unique space for each session.

The stage visuals for the Wonder session.

Q: How many people work on making this happen? How many hours?

One of our favorite aspects of working on a project of this scale is the opportunity to hand-pick a team of creative collaborators, animators, illustrators and artists to bring the creative direction to life. All in all, a team of 13 people spent over 750 hours creating all of the screen content for TED2019. It’s a massive undertaking, but we love being able to create something beautiful with so many incredibly talented people.

Q: What were you most excited about when you heard this year’s theme was Bigger Than Us?

“Bigger Than Us” sparked so many fun points of inspiration for our team. Scale, multiplicity and a deep emotional sense of being part of something big were all themes that surfaced early. Additionally, once we saw Jordan Awan’s beautifully playful illustrations that made up the theme for this year, we were drawn toward embracing a more warm illustrated aesthetic.

Q: The turnaround for some sessions can be a bit tight. Were there any this year that really came down to wire?

TED is so committed to curating the best content in the world, and that means that certain things can change late in the game as the full picture of themes, talks and what fits best and where is constantly being reassessed and tweaked — right up until the event. Based on this reality and the complexity of the creation and builds of some of our environments, we are typically refining artwork right up until the start of TED. Play is one session that had a lot of moving pieces to pull together to make it work just right on the stage, but it looks really fun! There really are little tweaks and improvements that we dial in on all the pieces once we are in the room, so yes — we’re proud of all of them :).

The stage visuals for the Knowledge session.

Q: The art for each session is based on the session title — any secret inspirations?

Yes, absolutely! Truth is really about a sense of searching for truth in community. So we imagined a group of explorers searching a mysterious cave-like space for gems of truth in the darkness. We start TED2019 with this sense of curiosity and wonder. Matt Chinworth’s richly textured illustration style perfectly captured the inspiration on this one.

Possibility brought to mind the sense an artist feels while looking at a blank canvas, just before filling it with colour.

Mystery was fun. We imagined a vibrant otherworldly jungle environment filled with camouflaged creatures. There is something there, but we never really get to see. We knew we wanted to work with Nick Ladd on this since he has created some really beautiful artwork with a unique VR illustration technique. Nick created this beautiful environment, painting the whole world in VR that we could then fly through and explore.

The stage visuals for the Mystery session.

Q: Which sessions are you most excited to see play out on the TED screen?

We love the artwork our incredible team created for every session, so it’s hard to pick. Here are four moments that stand out:

The TED2019 opener. We knew that Jordan Awan’s playful illustration just had to have an equally playful animation style. Ryan Woolfolk’s animation and John Poon’s music and sound design make us smile! We think TEDsters in the theater will agree.

Mindshift: A 3D world of humanoid objects trying to learn and build, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. Nick Counter and Mike Ellis design such a fun and interesting world that feels right at home with the architectural forms on the TED stage.

Imagination: This is probably the earliest clear concept we developed for this year. We imagined a beautiful but forgotten performance space filled with mirrors. In an impossibly serendipitous moment, we see a butterfly land on stage and create a colourful kaleidoscope of reflections and light throughout the scene. It’s a beautiful imagined moment that sparks a sense of wonder. Eleena Bakrie’s gorgeous illustration style really makes the stage sing.

Possibility: We actually built a scale model of the TED stage in studio for this one. We ended up strategically pouring gallons of paint all over it, letting color slowly overtake the entire stage. The flowing paint you see is all real and physically interacts with the forms on the stage as it travels down.

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The stage visuals for the Possibility session.

Q: What do you want the audience to experience while watching your art?

Everything we do ties back to our “why” as a creative studio: create powerful experiences that matter. Really, we want to create a space that feels incredibly beautiful and sparks wonder in the audience. TED is already brilliant at accomplishing this goal, so our aim is really to come alongside and help create a space and an environment that thoughtfully and intentionally ties into the theme of each session and each talk at TED2019.  

We really value the opportunity and the challenges that come with creating something special with TED each year. This year was no exception and the added components of re-imagining the design of the TED stage in addition to the 100+ content deliverables was something that required long hours, a thorough design process and deep collaboration, putting this years theme into practice = Bigger than us.

The stage visuals for the Meaning session.

Credits:

Production Design & Stage visuals

COLOURS & SHAPES

Anthony Diehl
Creative Director

Gordie Cochran
Producer

Arielle Ratzlaff
Design

Matt Chinworth
Illustration

Mike Ellis
Illustration

Nick Counter
Illustration & Animation

Nick Ladd
Illustration & Animation

Jordan Bergren
Illustration & Animation

Stephanie Stromenger
Illustration

Eleena Bakrie
Illustration

John Poon
Sound Design

Ryan Woolfolk
Animation

Jonathan Bostic
Animation

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Meaning: Notes from Session 12 of TED2019

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Eric Liu speaks at TED2019

Eric Liu asks us to commit to being active citizens — wherever we are. He speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us, on April 19, 2019, in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

The final session of TED2019 was a spectacle. From powerful calls to civic engagement and ancestorship to stories of self and perseverance, the session wrapped an incredible week and soared through the end with an unforgettable, totally improvised wrap-up.

The event: Talks and performances from TED2019, Session 12: Meaning, hosted by TED’s Chris Anderson, Helen Walters and Kelly Stoetzel

When and where: Friday, April 19, 2019, 9am, at the Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, BC

Speakers: Eric Liu, Yeonmi Park, Suleika Jaouad, David Brooks, America Ferrera, Bina Venkataraman

Music: Richard Bona on guitar

Mindblowing, completely improvised wrap-up covering the whole week: Freestyle Love Supreme: Anthony Veneziale, Chris Jackson, Chris “Shockwave” Sullivan, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Arthur Lewis

The talks in brief:

Eric Liu, author and CEO of Citizen University

  • Big idea: Instead of feeling despair at the state of the world, we need to commit to living as active, responsible citizens of our societies.
  • How? At a time when the free world seems leaderless, Liu says that we should seek hope not in leadership but in each other. His proposal: that we learn to practice “civic religion” and commit to being active in our citizenship. In pursuit of this, Liu started Civic Saturdays in 2016. These take a similar format to faith-based gatherings, with songs and sermons, but they all stem from shared ideals and a desire for fellowship. Participants then work together to organize rallies, register voters and improve their communities. Liu hopes this can counter the emerging culture of hyperindividualism, where “we are realizing now that a free-for-all is not the same as freedom for all,” and instead build community where we feel empowered to bring about, and not wait for, meaningful change.
  • Quote of the talk:Power without character is a cure worse than a disease.”

Yeonmi Park, human rights activist

  • Big idea: Everything must be taught, even the fundamentals we sometimes take for granted: freedom, compassion, love.
  • How? Right vs. wrong, justice vs. injustice — these aren’t concepts we inherently understand, says human rights activist Yoenmi Park. Telling her story of escape from North Korea, Park says that life there is “a totally different planet.” She gives an unsettling example: there’s only one definition of love in North Korea — “love for the Dear Leader.” Romantic love doesn’t exist as a concept or possibility. And for most North Koreans, neither does freedom. Now a US citizen, Park calls for us to fight for North Koreans — for all oppressed people around the world — who cannot speak for themselves. Freedom is fragile, she says. Who will fight for us when we’re not free?
  • Quote of the talk: “Nothing is forever in this world, and that’s why we have every reason to be hopeful.”

David Brooks, political and cultural commentator, New York Times Op-Ed columnist

  • Big idea: Our society is not only sinking into economic, environmental and political crises — we’re also mired in a deepening social crisis, trapped in a valley of isolation and fragmentation. How do we find our way out of this valley?
  • How? Society tells us that success is everything, that those with less success are less important, and that we can bootstrap ourselves to happiness without the help of other people. All of these maxims, says David Brooks, are lies. Brooks believes that those he calls “weavers” — community workers who re-knit social bonds on a local level — will create a “cultural and relational revolution” that leads each of us out of loneliness and into a new world of joy and social connection.
  • Quote of the talk: “We need a cultural and relational revolution … My theory of social change is that society changes when a small group of people find a better way to live, and the rest of us copy them.”

Suleika Jaouad speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 – 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Suleika Jaouad, cancer survivor and author of the soon-to-be-published memoir Between Two Kingdoms

  • Big idea: As we start to live longer, we will spend more of our lives navigating between being sick and well. We need to break down the idea that the two are wholly separate.
  • How? Jaouad’s recovery from leukemia in her mid-20s is best described in her own words: “The hardest part of my cancer experience began once the cancer was gone. That heroic journey of the survivor we see in movies and watch play out on Instagram? It’s a myth. It isn’t just untrue; it’s dangerous, because it erases the very real challenges of recovery.” Nothing about being ill had prepared her for re-entering the world of the well. So Jaouad calls on us to break down the boundary between the two. “If we can all accept that we are not either ‘well’ or ‘sick’ but sometimes in between, sometimes forever changed by our experiences, we can live better.”
  • Quote of the talk: “You can be held hostage by the worst thing that’s ever happened to you and allow it you hijack your remaining days, or you can find a way forward.”

America Ferrera, actor, director and activist

  • Big idea: By putting representation into practice in our media, we can honor the extraordinary richness of humanity.
  • How? In her breakthrough hits Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty, Ferrara brought her authentic self to her work, leading to critical, cultural and financial success. She gave voice to multi-dimensional characters typically uncentered in media, allowing them to “exist in the center of their own lives.” But that wasn’t enough: though directors and producers would privately praise diversity efforts, the entertainment industry was slow to change. This was frustrating because shows like Ugly Betty gave people around the world — including Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai — their first chance to see themselves onscreen. But if we stay courageous and ensure our actions follow our intentions, Ferrara says, we can create media that reflects the world we live in and honors the genuine humanity of all.
  • Quote of the talk: “Change will come when each of us has the courage to question our own fundamental values and beliefs and see to it that our actions lead to our best intentions.”

Bina Venkataraman, writer and futurist

  • Big idea: As both descendants and ancestors of civilization, we must step out of our culture of immediacy and fight the allure of everyday minutiae, and think of generations to come.
  • How? Own up to the mistakes we’ve made and redesign the communities, businesses and institutions that fail at helping us prepare for things to come. What we measure, reward and fail to imagine keeps us from making strides toward shared, significant success as a species. Our foresight is impaired — in order to fix it, we need to shift and see the world and the people in it as a part of a shared resource, where the progress we make now can make be passed down to our collective children and grandchildren.
  • Quote of the talk: When we think about the future, we tend focus on predicting exactly what’s next; whether we’re using horoscopes or algorithms to do that, we spend a lot less time imagining all the possibilities the future holds.”

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