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Inspiration Abounds at SXSW Interactive 2013

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Long known as an event for introducing groundbreaking Web sites and social networking platforms, this year SXSW featured a few standouts that provide the infrastructure and a platform, which invite and inspire further innovation.

Bre Pettis, the Brooklyn, N.Y.–based founder and CEO of MakerBot Industries (known for their 3-D printers), unveiled the MakerBot Digitizer, a relatively inexpensive device that uses lasers to scan the contours of physical objects. The measurements can then be uploaded to a PC or MAC and, using MakerBot’s software, produce a replication of the object using the MakerBot 3-D printer.

The invention is already providing inspiration for solving real-world problems both big and small.  “It closes the ecosystem we started with the Makerbot,” Pettis said. “It gives everyone the ability to easily duplicate small household objects, tools and parts.”

Another hardware innovation was launched by Leap Motion; the company introduced a groundbreaking motion-capture interface for PC and Mac computers that transforms the way users interact, play and learn with software.  The Leap Motion Controller is a tiny device that sits front of the computer and generates an infrared field, which enables the company’s software to track precise motions of the user’s hand and fingers.  Users can then  “grab,” “move,” and “push” files and folders on the computer.

Leap Motion has built a developer community that has already started generating apps and games that offer an immersible experience with the device. They claim the motion-capture device is already being used to help the disabled use e-mail and access the Web. There is also a science education app for dissecting a frog, in addition to other types of classroom aids in their app store.

Not to be outdone by scrappy start-ups, NASA brought inspiration of its own this year with a scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), along with a wonderful exhibit showcasing its capabilities. The exhibit is part of an effort by NASA to bring public awareness to the project, which is scheduled to launch October 2018, and featured live Skype sessions with members of JWST from the project’s assembly facility at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“The Hubble [Space Telescope] gave us questions,” explained Jason Kalirai, JWST deputy project scientist for the Space Telescope Science Institute. “We need a new generation of telescopes to answer them.” According to Kalirai, the JWST is the first of this new generation of space telescopes. One of its goals will be to identify planets beyond our solar system that will have some likelihood of supporting life. To accomplish this, it will study the composition of planets identified by the Hubble and other Earthbound telescopes and measure their similarities with our world.

Ten new technologies had to be invented in order to construct the JWST. “In order to measure the attributes of such distant planets, the mirrors had to be polished in such a way that variances in the their surface could only be measured in nanometers,” Kalirai explained. “The instruments that were developed to accomplish this are now used to diagnose ocular diseases.” These examples are just a few of the latest innovations that highlight a few ways in which art, science and technology can work together to make a difference.

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