Sydney Community Ambassador, Caroline McLaren, chats with author, researcher, engineer, futurist and teacher, Mark Pesece. Learn about Mark’s latest project, and some of his predictions for 2013.

Name: Mark Pesce


Twitter: @mpesce

Best known for: Inventor of VRML and Moore’sCloud Light, panelist and judge on the New Inventors

Tell us a bit about your newest project Moore’sCloud.

Essentially it’s a smart light; a bunch of LEDs that is controlled by a powerful computer. It enables us to do stuff with light we’ve never been able to do before. You can keep track of things from far away; like the weather elsewhere in the world or even other people. I like to describe it as when a light makes sweet love to a smart phone. We’ve currently got a Kickstarter campaign running to get enough support to make it happen. 

How did you come up with the idea for Moore’sCloud?

It started back in June when I was playing with a product called Raspberry Pi. Kids know how to use computers but they often don’t know how they work. Raspberry Pi is a small and simple computer which kids can play with to learn how computers function. They can hook up wires and lights and see how it works. As I was playing with it I began to ask myself what would happen if I connected it up to a series of powerful LED lights.

The basic prototype looked nothing like what the finished product. My first prototype looked like a pipe bomb. I took it to some others and they were supportive of the design. Over the past four months we’ve built up a team of hardware and software engineers.

No one is getting paid; so it’s just like a start-up. We’ve been working on it since August. It’s amazing how much faster things can get done now than even a few years ago. We can move quickly these days thanks to the increased access – whether that it is to professionals or our social networks.

You’ve done a bit of work quantifying social graphs, both with People Browsr and Plexus. It’s interesting to see the balance between privacy and independence and using data for commercial purposes.

Whenever we play in the public sphere, someone can always use your data for their own purposes. It’s a challenge of the modern world. Nonetheless, depending on an individual’s preference they can choose how much of their social graph is shared with the world.

We don’t have to think hard about locking our cars, and cars are rarely stolen. That’s because someone has thought about the process. We need to make it just as easy to protect online privacy.

With Plexus I was working on a way for anyone – regardless of their technical background – to easily protect their personal data. Before I started working on Moore’sCloud I’d planned to start a PhD on Plexus. The need for a system which enables people to choose the privacy has only gotten more important and will continue to do so.

For over three decades now you have been thinking about and, better yet, undertaking some of the world’s most cutting-edge projects. What do you do to maintain your creativity and open mindedness?

I read a lot. That’s actually been one of the challenges of working on Moore’sCloud; I haven’t had the chance to read as much as I am used to. Normally I read for four or five hours per day. We’re fortunate in having things like Twitter. It’s like a continuous gold mine. If I’m ever bored I can always just hop on there and fill up with all sorts of information.

Over time I’ve also learnt to sense how important something will be. When I’m reading about it I have an ‘internal twinge’ about what will be important. The quote by William Gibson sums it up nicely – “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed”.

One of the recent ‘internal twinges’ has been about the amount of time people spend staring into smart phones. When I’m travelling I play a game on public transport to see how many people are looking at their smartphones. In any given carriage on the subway – say there might be 7 or 8 people – a different proportion of people will be looking into their smartphones. In Singapore it’s about 75%, in Bangkok it’s 75% or more, whilst in Osaka – where I was recently – it was only about 50%. In Sydney, depending on the time of day it’s usually about 50 – 60%. It wasn’t like that a couple years ago.

In 3 years from now, we can ask ourselves whether everyone will be staring into their phone all the time? What will that mean for us as society? Through smartphones other people are demanding your attention. Everything is demanding your attention. We don’t have a tool. We don’t have precedents to cope with that.

What has been the role of serendipitous events in your life?

There’ve been a couple big events in my life that – in retrospect – turned out to be rather serendipitous. The first one was to move to the other side of the US – to San Francisco – and then to move to the other side of the world – to Sydney. I wouldn’t be the same person today without those experiences.

When I visited San Francisco in the 80s it became clear I needed to move there. It took me about 6 months, but eventually I did. Those turned out to be formative years for me. It was when the web was taking off in San Francisco, so I got to help make it happen. That led me onto other opportunities, like creating VRML, writing books and teaching.

A similar thing happened when I came to visit Sydney. When I arrived I had a chance to get involved with the New Inventors, which has lead to working with them for a number of years. That led to a lot of other opportunities, like guest speaking, which I do a lot more these days.

I’d encourage anyone to follow their heart. Don’t follow every crazy idea though. Sit with it for a while and honour the persistence of those ideas that you’re meant to follow.

You’ve mentioned before getting a ‘thrill’ out of seeing humans communicate effectively with one another. How does it play out in the projects you’re currently working on?

I’ve always done something with networks and I’ve always enjoyed the thrill of connecting people. It’s funny, just this morning I was working on Moore’sCloud; connecting the light with the computers. Testing it and optimising, making it communicate better.

Moore’sCloud really is a communication tool. It can play a role in connecting people. One of our demos is the ‘Love Tap’; you can connect at a distance through light.  So grandma could tap the light when she’s waking up in the morning and your Moore’sCloud would emit a light telling you she’s up and thinking about you.

Back in the 1960’s Ted Nelson wrote and spoke publically about Projext Xanadu. Its goal was to create a computer network with a simple user interface; a rather lofty and bold vision for the time. In the 1990s you were particularly passionate about this vision as well. Do you think the vision for Project Xanadu has finally been realized?

I think we’re there; it’s the web. It’s not exactly how Ted Nelson would’ve liked it to be, but it’s close enough. They say that perfect is the enemy of the good. What we have is good.

Xanadu had a more comprehensive vision for protecting copyright, which is something the web as we know it doesn’t have. Not that it’s the worst thing to happen. Strict copy right isn’t necessary. It does make it hard for some business models – like the recording industry – to make money, but they can find other ways.

You seem to be an advocate of the ‘open source’ model. Your latest book – The Next Billion Seconds – has been published on your blog in chapters over the course of 2012. 

Back in 1991 I founded the Ono-Sendai Corporation. It was a small startup in the pre dotcom days. It went out of business in a few years just because there wasn’t enough business. A lot of startups went out of business around that time. One of the reasons they didn’t survive was because they didn’t collaborate.

So when I invented VRML, I just wanted people to use it. This was well before the term ‘open source’ was coined. I didn’t need to make a job out of it, so I was looking for other value return. There are different ways to derive value and in this case it was more about reputation. I think it’s always going to be a mixed ecology between open and closed source.

With Moore’sCloud, all of our designs are open source. We even run our business in an open source way – all our company processes are transparent. That’s the opposite from the way companies are normally run with their ‘commercial in confidence’ approach. We believe as a small organisation we’ll get more traction by being open. That’s meant we’ve even written a blog post about our business principles, which includes “We believe sharing our intellectual property creates the greatest value”.

Given you identify as a futurist, are there any predictions for 2013 and beyond that you’d like to share with us?

Already we’ve seen an increasing number of objects that have ‘smart’ capabilities. Moore’sCloud is part of that movement. We’re also going to see that intersecting with technologies from military and security. We’ve read about the drones flying over Afghanistan. Well those drones are coming home. They will become more common place.

In cities and in the country, there will be drones which are doing good and bad. There might be drones monitoring fertiliser distribution for farmers to help optimise its efficiency and limit the impacts on the environment. There’ll also be drones keeping an eye on mobs, and depending on which side of the mob you’re on, that could be a good thing or a bad thing. This is the world we’ve made. This is the bed we’re going to have to lie in. Computers will be talking to and interacting with one another.

If we consider 2011 and 2012 were when we learnt how to really talk to one another via computers. We learnt how to communicate and converse. In 2013 and 2014, we won’t be the only actors in that conversation. Other voices will be in the conversation. Artifacts will start having voices – like energy meters and drones. Having those extra voices in the conversation will go from being weird to – well, not commonplace – but not as weird.

About our Ambassador // Caroline McLaren is the Activator at Hub Sydney, which will be Sydney’s largest coworking space when it opens in April 2013.