Roboticist Dennis Hong, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, this March will speak at the TED2011 Conference in Long Beach, Calif. There, he will join the event stage with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford, and Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, giving the “18-minute talk of a lifetime,” as the world-renowned conference declares.

Speakers for the TED2011 (originally called Technology Entertainment and Design) Conference were announced this past week. TED is a global set of conferences hosted by the American private nonprofit Sapling Foundation, formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading,” according to the group’s website. Hong will focus his March 3 talk on the Blind Driver Challenge project, an effort to allow blind people to one day drive, using non-visual interfaces, as safely as any sighted driver does now.

“Giving a talk at TED is considered a great honor and a once in a life time opportunity to share ‘ideas that change the world,’ and to have the biggest impact,” said Hong, director of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory.

Hong is no stranger to TED events. He spoke at a regional TEDx event in Newport News, Va., in 2009. The “x” events are smaller versions of TED, held in a variety of locations throughout the world. Dubbed TEDxNASA, Hong spoke on the innovative robotics work at RoMeLa and the secrets of its success. The talk, and a resulting video, has resulted in more than 1 million page views on several websites, including YouTube. TED organizers saw the TEDxNASA talk and invited him to the 2011 event, Hong said.

“It is amazing how many people know about me from that, people I meet who are not necessarily in the field or engineering,” Hong said. “I will use this opportunity to share with the world what I have learned about blindness while working on the Blind Driver Challenge project, to raise awareness, and inspire other researchers and scientists to develop technology to help the visually impaired.”

The Blind Driver project is a Virginia Tech-led, National Federation of the Blind-initiated mission started roughly five years ago. RoMeLa accepted the Blind Driver Challenge in 2006, the only known university to do so. In July 2009, Hong debuted a prototype buggy as the first car for the blind at the National Federation of the Blind’s summer 2009 Youth Slam Camp in Maryland. He also spoke about the Blind Driver Challenge project at the TECH+ Forum in Seoul, Korea, as part on the international G20 summit. The November 2010 talk was given in front of more than 5,500 people at the Seoul Olympic Gymnasium.

Hong says he plans to bring one of the current Blind Driver cars, a modified 2010 Ford Hybrid Escape SUV, to TED2011 and give a demo on the host location’s parking lot. TED2011will be preceded by a public debut of the Blind Driver SUVs later this month at the Rolex24 event at Daytona International Speedway. The event is expected to be televised on the Speed Channel.

The first TED was held as a single event in 1984 in Monterey, Calif., and focused on technology design, the hub of the surrounding Silicon Valley region. Held annually since 1990, TED has expanded to include a wide range of topics, including research and practice of science and culture, and include several host cities, including London. Past speakers include Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and “Avatar” film director James Cameron.

The TED talks, including that of Hong, will be available for online viewing. Tickets to the actual event were sold out months ago, said Hong. According to TED organizers, Web views of videos showing previous speakers have topped 290 million as of July 2010.

Hong received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.

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