Last week, I attended my third GEL conference in New York City. Like previous versions of this conference, it’s a day of talks from speakers that have a variety of stories to tell about “good experiences.” The diversity of the speakers’ backgrounds is the strength of the conference and this year didn’t disappoint. In a world of technology conferences that feature the same five subjects talked about by the same dozen people, I look forward to GEL every year to hear from health care workers, artists, restauranteurs, musicians, and yes, technologists.
A few years back, the conference split into two days where day one is an experience or tour and day two are standard talks given in an auditorium. Last year I had a blast touring MoMA and learning to juggle pins, this year I had a great time doing a Central Park soundwalk (pb describes it here in his GEL recap). The walk was great, you basically blindfold yourself, grab a rope, and start shuffling around for about 20 minutes. If you’ve never tried anything like this before, I can’t recommend it enough. The first few minutes are pure anxiety bordering on panic but eventually you get used to the shuffling feet and with your eyes firmly shut for an extended period, your hearing takes over. I was blown away by the variety of birds in Central Park and sounds of people and music that accompanied our walk. The biggest surprise for me was finding that my brain tried to start “mapping” sound as we walked — I remember hearing strollers rolling towards me or birds growing near and in my mind I was placing them in a virtual canvas so I knew where they were headed and when I could expect to pass them.
After the blindfold walk, we sat and talked about what we heard and experienced, then we walked and stopped at various locations in the park to enjoy sound (with our eyes closed) from a single location. The mind-blowing moment during this section happened when I was sitting next to a walking path just outside of both a softball game and a merry-go-round. As people walked past and balls were hit, I heard some light foot padding and instantly recognized it as a dog going past. The first thought that sprang into my head was “that is the sound of a small, light dog” and surprised at the thought, I opened my eyes to see a little poodle trotting past. Now, I don’t know if I figured that out by chance or if my brain has a database of various dog sounds by weight I wasn’t aware of, but being in that place and state of mind was a wonderful exercise in getting reacquainted with my sense of hearing. The other highlight was walking to the center of the park and being in a spot in Manhattan where I could see no buildings of any kind, I was completely surrounded by natural things like trees and grass, and I could barely hear any sounds from the city. I didn’t know a place like that existed in NYC.
The day of talks went well and the subject matter and style is a lot like the TED conference. The best talks were both entertaining and enlightening and even if I had to classify a few talks as less than superb, I at least learned something about an industry I didn’t know anything about. In past years of GEL, I’ve remembered a few break out amazing talks that stuck with me for weeks and a few horrible stinkers that had me looking at my watch. This year’s talks had a few memorable points but no single talk stood out as truly amazing but on the positive side I don’t recall wanting any talk to end early.
If you attend a lot of technology conferences and you’re growing tired of hearing the same old thing, try out the GEL conference — sometimes it’s hit and miss and all over the map, but it’s always a good time in a wonderful city.