We arrived at the hotel late on Sunday night and, in true RGE style, parked the SRZero right in front of the entrance. You could tell that the NI team had eagerly been awaiting our arrival. By 10pm we had already met with Shaker (our main contact’s boss), Rod (the Organiser of the entire NI Week), and accompanying Mark Gradwell were all 3 of the 3 UK journalists that were covering NI Week!
The morning after, the car needed to be in the exhibition hall by 9am or we would lose our prestigious spot at the front… We were all pretty tired after the previous few days driving, but luckily Alec had just arrived. After being stuck in Belgium with University commitments, he was understandably keen to drive the car and was therefore more than happy to get up at 7:00am and drive the 40 yards from the Hotel to the Convention Centre. However, 40 yards was clearly not enough and 20 minutes later, after a suspiciously high number of wrong turns by Mr de Zegher, we still hadn’t made it in.
Once his enthusiasm was curbed, we headed back towards the convention centre and Alec had the first drive of the SRZero indoors. This was a fairly surreal experience, passing by half built exhibitions and half-awake exhibitors, but eventually we made it onto the carpet with half an hour to spare, nice!
Next up was cleaning… a lot of cleaning. 4 man hours to be precise. But by lunch the car was spotless and we had met with Julie Schreier. She showed us our media schedule and introduced us to all the main contacts, and then it was time to meet Mark Walters. This was the man with his job on the line if we gave a bad presentation, his relief at seeing the team physically present gave way to anxiety as we ran through the presentation and he saw us chopping and changing the slides in front of his eyes…We assured him that we would be ready with a version that we were happy with by Tuesday, and he left happy but still somewhat apprehensive (all the other presentations seem to have been prepared weeks in advance!).
The rest of the day was spent showing the car to NI staff and preparing the media for the main event. This involved a couple of videos and some quick 2 minute talks by Alex as the media packs toured the floor in search of the most exciting applications of NI technology.
By the end of the day we were relatively tired and I for one was ready to sleep. But then the silver lining – our stand was right at the front of the exhibition hall, and at 5pm a bar and food magically appeared 5 meters to our left, brilliant! Now Toby, Alec and I were all extremely tempted to sample the Austin nightlife, but we remained disciplined and made our way to the hotel room to work on our presentation until the early hours (3am for reference!).
We were all up early on Tuesday to man the stand and meet the public for the first time! Alex, Nik and Dave took over the stand for much of the exhibition while Pambo and Clemens worked hard on the website and logistics respectively. As for the 3 musketeers, we were working once again on our scripts in preparation for lunch with Mark and Kelly. There are some benefits to having to work on the keynote presentation, and this lunch was one of them –P F Changs is highly recommended. The spicy chiken lettuce wraps are a great starter, and don’t get me started on the main course!
When we got back, Julie and Trisha were on hand to dispatch various media outlets to our stand. We paired up with Toby and Alex taking the left side, then Alec and I took the right side. Look out for some of the articles here!
Tuesday evening ended much like Mondays, with a bar and food – although it was far busier than the previous night. All the team were on hand to answer questions and then it was time for the 3 presenters to grab some food and head to the hotel room for another late night. This time however, we managed to finally get a script that we were happy with! We had it together by 11pm and spent another hour memorising it before ambling into bed and falling asleep in seconds.
This was the same drill as Tuesday for the team on the ground, and it started the same for the 3 presenters. But then at midday we had to head up to Ballroom D for the first rehearsal..
We met with Mark and Shaker beforehand and then had a run through. I was up first on stage and you look up and see 3,000 seats stretching out in all directions – only about 10 people in the audience mind you, but when the slides showed up in a funky order it was enough to confound me and I promptly forgot my second line… it wasn’t looking good. Toby and Alec made it through their sections without any issues but perhaps a little flat – the efforts of pervious evenings, and repeating the same thing 30 or 40 times made it hard to sound as enthusiastic as we should have been!
There were nods of approval for the NI team, but we were about 1minute 40 over time, uh-oh! It was time to start cutting our carefully crafted masterpiece… Luckily Shaker was on hand to help shakedown the technical section and after an hour of intensive re-working, we had an entirely new, and much improved section – only thing was that now Alec had a whole new piece to learn!
Then Thursday’s Master of Ceremonies arrived, and it was time for the penultimate rehearsal. We met Ray briefly and he told us to relax and wished us the best of luck, then he had to be working on remembering his own lines! Now with the very recent changes to our script, we had to change the slides too. Unfortunately during the last run through of the day, the wrong version was uploaded and subsequently all 3 of us stalled at some point, and Toby had to take a few seconds to recover. Mark Walters was getting very worried now and before we left at 8:30pm he said to Toby;
“Tonight, make sure you go over your lines and make sure you know them backwards!”
Toby nodded, looked at the floor, and said nothing.
You see RGE had a different approach. We knew the lines, we were just too uptight and to be honest, not really enjoying the experience in that moment. It was time to relax. Everyone else was at the big NI Conference party and so we decided to go for a meal – we joined the rest of the team and film crew at Six and enjoyed some pizza on the roof terrace at sunset. A slightly too bro-mantic setting began to evolve. As the dulcet tones of one of Austin’s famous musical offerings filled the air, the terrace began to fill up and before we knew it, the place was packed, so we decided to stay a little longer!
The evening was going swimmingly until we bumped into the NI UK crew – Adam Bakehouse, who was the first person RGE approached about sponsorship, and who has backed the project for the keynote speech was there too! He was utterly horrified to find the keynote speakers out and after seeing him we decided to head home in true Cinderella style before the clock struck 12.
The big day had arrived, the team were showered, dressed, fed and in the ballroom by 6:30am. We had time for a final run through and aside from some digestive issues (owing partly to the occasion and partly to the night before) we were fine.
I haven’t yet mentioned these two teams and so perhaps now is a good time to do so. One has been building a hybrid SUV and has been doing extremely well in national competitions, but the project that really impressed us was the team that have developed a way that enables blind drivers to drive, not simply be driven by an automated system. They have developed an interface whereby the blind driver can be informed of the space around them, and actively make driving decisions – a truly remarkable and inspiring project!
We had developed a sense of camaraderie as we went through the endless rehearsals and refinements together, and were all looking out for each other, while at the same time being focussed on remembering our own parts.
The run through was delayed as Dr Kaku, the headline speaker in the keynote session, had to check through his videos with the AV team. We used this time to good effect, drinking water and practising our lines but the nerves were beginning to set in and before we were really ready, it was time to do the rehersal..
It actually went ok and we all, for the first time, got our lines right! We went backstage and the presenters from Virginia Tech were on hand to hi-5 us as we came down. The other two presentations went by without a hitch and we began to relax a little before the big moment arrived. We decided to go outside and grab a drink – mistake. Outside the concourse was packed with a couple of thousand delegates eating fruit and drinking coffee, all eagerly awaiting the keynote that morning. This promptly awoke the butterflies in my stomach that had only just subsided. Then, to compound the growing sense of unease, Claudio turned up and wanted to film us and find out how we were feeling, not something that you normally want to do before a big presentation, but duty called.
Suddenly, before we knew it, a booming voice asked the audience to take their seats and we rushed backstage to get our microphones on. A couple of videos rolled and then Ray walked out to a rapturous reception, clearly a local favourite!
We were backstage pacing nervously, reciting our lines and drinking water to whet our drying mouths… The familiar sound of Alex voice filled the room as the introductory video started and it was 1 minute to go… nerves gave way to a couple of nervous jokes and then..
“Please welcome, Alec de Zegher, Toby Schulz, and Andy Hadland…”
The video finished, we were up the stairs, through the black curtain and out into the blinding lights with 3,500 faces looking up at us. Ray passed us the slide clicker and it was time…
… Afterwards we were greeted by the familiar hi-5 from Virginia tech as they went up for their big moment. Claudio and Jonathan’s big video finish enabled the presentation to finish on a real high! A shake of the hand from Shaker and Mark, a polite nod from Dr Kaku and a few proud text messages from Adam, Mark and Dave, as well as the rest of the RGE team sat in the audience.
We sat by the side to watch the rest of the keynote – the other teams did well and the blind driving team delivered a rousing speech. Then Dr Kaku wooed and wowed the audience with his descriptions of how technology will evolve in the future, and how we are already on the way there today.
After all this we talked to the press for 30 minutes backstage before heading back to the hotel. We saw Kelly from NI who proceeded to join us; she actually bought the team lunch and sorted our hotel for the next couple of nights which was very much appreciated!
We were all extremely tired after the excursions of the keynote and promptly fell asleep until 6pm before heading out for a meal with the NI UK team who had been the ones to sponsor RGE in the beginning. Fantastic peppercorn steaks were had all round at Flemings, and suitably stuffed we headed out into the night – towards Austin’s famous 6th street to celebrate..
Thanks to everyone at NI who believed in the project and helped to get the RGE message out there, and of course, for making Austin such a fantastic experience. Despite the stresses of rehersals, the feeling when we finish the presentation was phenomenal, and we would do it again without hesitation!