After many years of enviously watching friends attend, I was thrilled to be invited to FOO Camp this year. In case you don’t know what that is: FOO stands for Friends Of O’Reilly, and it’s an annual, invite-only “unconference” of ~300 technologists, designers, scientists, journalists, writers, and others at the O’Reilly Media compound in Sebastopol, California. The list of attendees every year is impressive and intimidating, and as soon as I was invited I began stressing about what I would talk about and whether I’d be in completely over my head. (Talking to other first-time attendees, which make up about 50% of every FOO Camp, this is a very common experience.)
FOO Camp is also about camping: you bring a tent or a sleeping bag and camp on the lawn or inside the O’Reilly offices (!). I brought my gear and camped on the lawn. The camping also made it all have an air of informality, which helped lower the intimidation factor.
The “un-” part of the conference means that none of the content is programmed before people arrive. You show up and sign up for a slot to speak about something that interests you or to demo something you’re working on. I came with one idea, but abandoned it to do another (How To Get Your Project Mojo Back, which I’ll detail in another post). The unconference format also means Powerpoints are discouraged, so you are leading or participating in a conversation, often with very brilliant, opinionated people. Getting a point in can be a challenge, as can getting people who are used to being the Smartest Person in The Room to keep quiet and let others talk. The loose, unconference-style made for some failed sessions, but also some great ones. I’d love to see one of the big design conferences try it.
At any given point, twelve (maybe more?) sessions can be going on, so it can be hard to choose among them. (It’s pretty unlikely anyone’s schedule looked the same.) Here’s what I ended up going to, and this was I’m sure in no way typical, although it does hint at the breadth of sessions:
- Medieval Manuscripts
- The Future of Memory
- Cloud Robotics
- Toys as Tools for Empathy
- Massive Sensor Data
- Physical Artifacts in Digital Media
- New UIs for Making Things
- What Are You Reading?
- Stop Drawing Dead Fish
A lot of the conference takes place outside the sessions, with discussions going on until late at night. (I got about 4 hours of sleep each night.) It’s not unusual to find yourself (as I did) at breakfast with a tech titan or to meet your childhood hero (in my case this was Steven Levy, author of Hackers, one of the books that got me interested in computers in 1984.)
There were a few major themes that kept emerging for me. The importance of thresholds was one, especially understanding when there are hidden thresholds that cause something (data, feedback, understanding, emotion, technology) to act unlike it did previously. A return to physicality was a third: how can we make objects reflect the content/data they contain? And objects helping other objects was another. What data can other objects via an Industrial Internet pass along to other objects to make them work better?
I returned with a head-full of ideas. I likened my brain to the Big Dog robot that had been kicked but was trying to right itself and keep moving. But it was an amazing experience, one I hope to have again another year. Thanks to O’Reilly for having me!