The streets of San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO — She is the face of the Intel Developer Forum, and she doesn’t look happy.

Let’s start with the eyes. They’ve got a weary, glazed expression, and the lids are baggy. Her hair is shoulder-length but not bouncy; it is a functional haircut. Dressed in a silver suit that looks

somewhat like the uniforms worn by the astronaut characters in those Pentium 4 commercials, she hovers over a console, glazing at a free-floating display of the IDF logo.

Her nickname, according to the organizers of IDF 2002, is “”Annie Gravity,”” and she is the predominant image in all the promotional material for the four day conference, including the show guide. As iconography, she’s an unusual choice, given the venue. She looks so unhappy with her work. So intense. So un-San Francisco.

This is only the second year Intel has had the year’s major IDF here. It used to be in San Jose — which is both a tasteful and incongruous place to gather Intel and its developers, but the IT community is used to much worse. The scenario is typically something like what Julia Roberts and John Cusack’s characters experience in America’s Sweethearts, where P.R. mastermind Billy Crystal whisks the cast of a science fiction movie and major film critics to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, a resort where they have nothing else to do but concentrate on the movie. A computing industry parallel was the former Santa Cruz Operation’s annual SCO Forum, where some guests were put up in what were essentially dorm rooms for mind-numbing tutorials on Unixware 7 implementations.

Location is just as important in the overall effect of a technology conference as it is in selling a house or running a business. Many vendors like to have user events near their company headquarters, as though their executives gain confidence by making the world come to them. Trade shows with a wider scope usually put a little more thought into it. Las Vegas is a perfect fit for Comdex Fall, for example, because it is one of the largest IT conferences in the world (until last year, anyway) and the over-the-top atmosphere of the casino strip matches the heady expectations the attendees have of the new products.

At first glance, San Francisco does not seem like a technology town, despite the massive CompUSA and the plethora of IT training schools (it is also reportedly home to one of the world’s first Internet cafes, but Intel probably doesn’t know that). And yet there is an underground culture in this city which is obviously drawn to the interpersonal issues that technology raises. Laughingsquid.org, which seems to be the local portal for these things, lists a variety of painters, sculptors, scientists and performers who explore technologies in ways that are probably not encouraged in companies like Intel.

There is Acme Engineering, for example, which makes the Obnoxicator, “”probably one of the most annoying devices known to mankind,”” its Web site states. It is a Radio Shack bullhorn with a digital delay inserted into its audio signal path. Then there is the more complex installations of Amorphic Robot Works, which was first formed 10 years ago. It includes not only artists but engineers and technicians whose work, its site says, is an ongoing endeavour to uncover the primacy of movement and sound. Obviously we can a lot about these things from simply watching a human being in nature, but ARW director Chico MacMurtie sees technology as a sort of mirror. “”These primal activities, when executed by machines, evoke a deep and sometimes emotional reaction,”” he says. One of the ARW’s major works sits in a building just beside the Moscone Center, where IDF is under way.

It is hard to tell who will make the more profound discoveries, the underground avant guard or the Intel Insiders. But there is at least one killer application in these streets which I have not encountered before: pedestrian traffic lights here have more than the usual red hand to indicate “”stop”” and the walking man to indicate “”go.”” A panel next to the icons gives a countdown that tells the pedestrian how many seconds they have before the lights will change (10, 9, 8, etc.). In a city full of steep climbs and very large crosswalks, this is pretty useful technology.

San Francisco may not be remembered as the place where IT’s greatest problems were solved, but offering a better way of getting from A to B and back again isn’t a bad way to start.

sschick@plesman.com

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