April 14, 2013

Dig South Gets Charleston Talking About Big Data And Big Questions

Brendan Kearney  /  Post and Courier

In one room, there was a 3D printer and the red comb, green iPhone case and purple, toy-size Cadillac grille it produced.

In another, there was talk of a near future when 3D printers could make replacement human organs, plus fleets of robot-driven taxis and phones made only of light. Speaking on stages were emissaries from big brands like CNN and Facebook and representatives from almost every Charleston tech- or arts-related company. Everyone from local academics to out-of-town tech investors to a guy wearing a horsehead listened.

And all around the TD Arena in downtown Charleston, buzz about this big data possibility or that social media trend mixed with quieter comments about the high price of tickets and lower-than-expected attendance. That was the scene Saturday at the inaugural Dig South Interactive Festival, an ambitious technology and arts gathering that executive producer Stanfield Gray hopes will become Charleston's answer to Austin's South by Southwest.

After a series of kickoff happy hours and concerts Friday evening, the conference began in earnest early Saturday with Robert Tercek's whirlwind presentation on how mobile, video and the cloud are changing the way we live."Video on a mobile phone puts 'me' in media," he said, as images from the Arab Spring and the asteroid impact in Russia flashed on a screen behind him.

Tercek, who has held executive positions at MTV, Sony and the Oprah Winfrey Network and is now chairman of the Creative Visions Foundation, said the trend toward virtualization and miniaturization will only continue, with eye-opening results even in the next decade.

"I think the smartphone's the next thing to get vaporized," he said, citing the development of watches that have many iPhone features and an around-the-neck pendant that will project light on your hand that can be used like an iPhone. "Whatever can be vaporized will be."

Debbie Bloom, a librarian from Columbia whose blog is "The Dead Librarian," was wowed. "He put it into words," she said. "And now I can go back to work and say, 'I want to be vaporized.'"

Later, Meredith Artley, vice president and managing editor of CNN.com, spoke on similar transformations shaking the news business. She forecast the ascendancy of mobile and said CNN and newspapers must strengthen the connection with their audiences, through appealing content –- serious and light, with as much multimedia as possible –- and Web 2.0.

"We're the biggest, but we're not the most engaging," she said of CNN's social media following. Panel discussions with catchy names and slick audiovisual setups played out throughout the day in club-level suites and classrooms around the arena.

In one, a local entrepreneur and representatives from the South Carolina Research Authority agreed that Charleston has been a small, slow-moving place but is getting up to speed as more people move here and more investors support S.C. start-ups. "It's getting there," said Leighton Webb of the Farmbar and Relocality. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done."

Noah Everett, the founder of Charleston-based Twitpic, shared the stage a couple hours later with Holly Burns, a content strategist at Facebook, and Jeff Smith, a senior account executive at Twitter.There was a slight tension between Everett, whose photo-sharing service has been increasingly marginalized by Twitter, and Smith, who spoke about the ways Twitter is using its popularity to make revenue.

Shari Schultz and Clare Kehoe, who work together at the Art Institute of Charleston, were among those walking the arena's hallways, taking in the exhibitor expo and surrounding conference. "I need to go look at what we're teaching our students so they're employable when they graduate, said Schultz, a design professor, when asked what brought her inside on the sunny spring day. "I'm thinking of the right student for the right thing."

Schultz and Kehoe seemed impressed with the conference organization and set up, though Schultz looked around the sparsely populated arena and said, "it's a little quiet." Misty Lister, a Dig South spokeswoman, said there were 1,300 to 1,500 attendees Saturday between walk-up single-day tickets and sponsor packages sold over the past several months.

After another night of concerts at the Charleston Music Hall, the Redux Contemporary Art Center and The Alley, the conference continues today with more talk of tech fundraising and mobile adoption and adaptation