Iain Couzin uses Xbox Kinect cameras and computer vision to study swarm behavior in creatures like locusts, fish and humans.
Kris Krüg/PopTech
Iain Couzin uses Xbox Kinect cameras and computer vision to study swarm behavior in creatures like locusts, fish and humans.

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PopTech is a yearly conference that focuses on tech and social change

The speakers aren't household names, but they're working to change the world

Among them: A 13-year-old solar power developer; a man who sees with his ears

Camden, Maine CNN —  

There are no rock stars at PopTech, no household names. But this annual conference in coastal Maine is a hub for super-smart people, a chance to get a look into ideas and technologies that soon will change the world.

Here’s a quick look at five of them, chosen from many.

You can see the full list of PopTech presenters and fellows on the group’s website.

Daniel Kish, ‘real-life batman’

Kish, who founded World Access for the Blind, sees the world with his ears. A self-described “batman,” Kish, who is blind, makes clicking sounds with his tongue when he walks the streets or goes hiking in the woods. He listens for those sounds to bounce off the objects around him, and uses that data to construct a mental image of the scene.

He has taught these methods of human echolocation to about 500 students on several continents. With his help, these blind students have learned to ride bikes through obstacle courses, skateboard and, perhaps most importantly, achieve greater independence.

“You’re basically querying the environment – you’re interrogating the environment,” he said. “You’re asking who are you and what are you, and the environment answers back.”

Adrien Treuille, game designer

For most people, gaming is a form of entertainment or escape. For Treuille, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, games can help solve real-world problems.

Treuille is the creator of FoldIt, a computer game that has helped solve long-standing puzzles about protein folding. The work of FoldIt is even helping to enhance science’s understanding of HIV. His new game, called EteRNA, does the same thing for RNA sequencing. Most important about these games, he says, is the fact that they’re fun.

And by having fun, gamers also are helping improve the world.

Dominic Muren, advocate for ‘maker’ culture

If you live in the Western world, chances are you can’t make much of anything. If you want a shirt, you buy it. If you want an Internet connection, you buy a router. No one knows much about these processes – well, no one except “makers” like Dominic Muren, who is creating a website to connect people who make things in the developing world with other people on the Internet who might be able to help.

The site, called alchematter.com, is expected to launch next summer. It will be yet another portal into a growing trend: People want to know where things come from and how they’re produced. Increasingly, people like Muren just want to make things for themselves. He grows plants in his yard in Washington that he spins into shirts and sweaters. He hopes his website will support projects li