Fantasy cars, 3D printing, robots and Google Glass

If you gave Henry ford the Internet in 1909 he probably would have made cars differently. Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors, certainly believes this as demonstrated in probably the most-inspiring session that I’ve seen at SXSW yet.

Local Motors is the world’s first and only crowd-sourced auto manufacturer, and the company is completely disrupting the US auto-making industry with its wildly original business model that allows it to design and build cars five times faster and 100 times cheaper than the competition.

And Local Motors does it all with only 50 full-time employees …  and a community of more than 30,000 engineers, designers and enthusiasts spread across 120 different countries working together and connected by an online portal to build the cars of the future.

The company recently launched the Rally Fighter, a 6.2 litre, v8 monster available to buy for £64,000 and designed entirely by networked community. But they don’t just build the cars of schoolboy fantasies, Local Motors is also working with partners such as Dominos, who has asked the company to purpose-build the ultimate pizza-delivering vehicle in under a year and the U.S. government who has asked the company to turn out a troop transporter for deployment in Afghanistan in less than five months. Can you imagine Chevy or Ford being able to respond to a brief like that?

It’s safe to say disruption and production are major trends out of Austin this year.

Everybody here is buzzing about 3D printing, spurred by Makerbot unveiling a combination 3D scanner/printer call ‘the Digitizer’. It may sound like something out of a 70s sci-fi film but it’s very real and going to be very disruptive to a wide array of industries, from tech to manufacturing as is now available to buy for less than £2k.

If Digitizers weren’t enough, at a session called A Robot in Your Pocket, Amit Kapur, CEO of Gravity and Jeff Bonforte, CEO of Xobni, had one message for us: robots are here and they’re living in our software. Huge advances in artificial intelligence and data science are allowing websites and apps to evolve into smart “robot” applications that work on our behalf and make our lives easier.

Skeptical? Look around; you’ll see the early stages in apps like Google Now, Siri and Xobni. And this is just the first stage. Months from now huge swathes of our lives could be on autopilot. If my phone will someday automate timesheets and expense claims, I’ll be a happy man.

Robots are cool, but cyborgs are better – which is why Google Glass beats everything. Luckily, we got to the Google Glass event very early and got front-row seats to the most-anticipated event of the week.

Seeing the tech up close and personal, I’m convinced the future is here – almost. There’s no doubt that the Glass hardware is incredibly disruptive and incredibly cool, but the software is also slightly underwhelming. No AR features, such as image or face recognition were shown and the Mirror API seems pretty prescriptive.

The developer community were left a bit unsatisfied as Google only demoed features such as mail, photos, news and social networking, all things we’re very used to on our smartphones. So, on the surface, Glass doesn’t appear to be much more than a smartphone you strap to your face, however I’m sure the details of more innovative applications of the software will be released over the coming months.

Until then, there are three big unanswered questions about Glass: will they open API to competitors like Facebook? How will Google monetise Glass software, will there be pay-per-view ads literally in your face? And, most importantly, do we really want an ad business to be in control of what is gong to be the biggest piece of consumer tech of the next 5 years, and something that we strap to our collective faces?

For the answers, we’ll have to wait.

Alex Miller is Founder and CEO of JamFollow him on Twitter for the latest on what’s happening at SXSW. 

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