Unwrapping ideas at Mumbai’s latest ‘unconference’

By Ridhi D Cruz, IANS

Mumbai : They call it an “unconference”, and it’s a small but growing rage among techies wanting to share ideas in town. BarCamps are an international network of “user generated conferences” that involve open, participatory workshop events.

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Some 200 people from diverse spheres took part in Mumbai’s latest BarCamp, where content is provided by participants – often focusing on early-stage web applications, and related free software or open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats.

The BarCamp on Oct 14 was held in the IRCC Auditorium of Shailesh J. Mehta School of Management (SJSOM) at the prestigious centre for training in higher technology, IIT Powai, Mumbai.

This event, christened BarCamp Mumbai 2, was the second such meet in the city. Its lead sponsor was Sun Microsystem, the giant Santa Clara, US-based vendor of computers, computer components, computer software, and IT services, known as the developer of technologies such as the Java platform and NFS, and as a key promoter of open systems in general and UNIX in particular.

Sun Microsystem recently emerged as one of the leading proponents and contributors of open source software.

The organisers, making their intent clear before the event itself, said that the underlying theme of a BarCamp is to turn the idea of a ‘conference’ on its head by removing all possible rules that hinder or limit “intense discussion”.

An ‘unconference’ is thus a collaborative discussion with no classroom rules. It is a participative session, where the speaker only leads the discussion. Participants can leave if bored or cut in when the ‘speaker’ is speaking to ask as many questions as they want.

In July 2007, BarCamp Bangalore 4 turned out to be the biggest BarCamp so far with around 600 participants.

Organiser Arpit Agarwal noticed that BarCamp Mumbai 2 was more focused on entrepreneurship than on the darling of previous BarCamps — technology. Participation in technology-heavy sessions was low, he explained, as compared to those on entrepreneurship-related topics.

This was evident when discussions led by venture capitalists (VCs) like Mahesh Murthy of the IT companies-focussed Seed Fund and start-up founders like Nikhil Kulkarni of blog-oriented Bloozle attracted visibly larger numbers.

But Kunal Lagwankar’s discussion on video streaming for mobile phones had many takers as well. Participants took the ‘unconference-like’ nature of the BarCamp to heart during his session when Lagwankar was allowed to explain his ‘innovation’ only after facing a quarter hour of heated questioning.

Towards the end, the multimedia content delivering company Novix CEO assured all present that his team had come up with an innovation to enable mobile video quality to increase manifold.

Lagwankar explained that the limited amount of bandwidth available today (30 – 35 kilobytes per second) causes a huge sacrifice in the quality of videos for mobile phones. “One of the favoured standards for video compression is H.264, an algorithm that is now available as the de facto video compressor for Apple,” he said.

“But this (H.264) is very complicated,” Novix co-founder Lilesh Ghadi later told IANS.

“Besides that, during the process of synchronization (between the device receiving the stream and the server broadcasting the stream), a lot of extra bytes get added to the stream. So the download becomes even heavier. Our innovation is a high compression algorithm that is simpler than H.264. It compresses the synchronization process. So your stream is lighter and therefore much more efficient. Now there’s room for more quality,” Ghadi explained, speaking from the company’s Thane office.

Socially oriented technologies surfaced briefly this BarCamp in Ashish Saboo’s talk about building entrepreneurship among public Internet providers. He is president of the NGO Association of Public ICT Tools Access Providers (APIP) and is keen on bridging the digital divide.

There was also talk about a human-powered mobile phone charger by Ankit Mehta, the managing director of Idea Forge. When asked what drove him towards this innovation, he replied that he had “felt the need for a power source in emergency situations in his personal life”.

“This was a huge motivation,” he continued. “When you look at the bigger picture,” he emphasised, “there is a huge need for such a charger because of acute power shortages in rural and semi-urban areas.”

With the expansion of mobile usage and networks across the country, Ankit believes his product will fulfil a growing need. Priced at Rs.200, the product called ‘e-charger’ will hit the market in a few months.

BarCamp claims to have a history of product launches and this event saw two. One was a new feature of randomly navigating through recommended Short Messaging Service (SMS) forwards available online on Rahul Gupta’s vakow.com. The other is a peer-reviewed blog and news content aggregator called Bloozle.

Interestingly, the trend of collaboration and sharing seen emerging since the introduction of Web 2.0 technologies like blogs and wikis seemed to be driving this ‘unconference’ even in the nature of innovations launched.

Some participants later felt that running four parallel sessions made it inconvenient for some, especially since the four venues were far apart.

The term ‘BarCamp’ was first coined when a couple of geeks revolted against not being invited to open source publishing luminary Tim O’Reilly’s annual invitation-only participant driven conference Foocamp. The first BarCamp was held in Palo Alto, California, in August 2005 and didn’t take much time to reach India.