10 lessons to take forward from this year’s SXSW Interactive
Technology • A look at the highlights of the festival, which is a celebration of ideas and the future.
Published: March 27, 2014 10:04AM
Updated: March 27, 2014 10:04AM
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FILE - In this Friday, July 26, 2013 file photo, Google Glass, a device which offers video recording, photographic, and Internet access capabilities while worn like a pair of glasses, rests on a table in the offices of web development firm Whiteboard in Chattanooga, Tenn. Wearables were featured at South by Southwest Interactive, and many of them are still in their infancy. (AP Photo/Chattanooga Times Free Press, Doug Strickland, File)

Austin, Texas • Sometimes it takes a little while to absorb the lessons of South by Southwest Interactive, the massive technology festival that concluded two weeks ago after five days of outsized parties, panels and weirdness.

The festival drew 32,798 participants, growing 7 percent from 2013, according to final numbers the festival released last week. Earlier reports, due to a miscount, had pegged attendance as dropping for Interactive in 2014.

But the fest, however crowded, is always a very individualized experience. Attendees choose the panels and parties they want to attend, but the plan frequently changes due to occurrences of serendipity and the logistics of getting from place to place. You could talk to thousands who were at SXSW and find none of them had the same festival.

But many of them might tell you this was a particularly strange one, bookended as it was by two tragedies. The death of Matthew Crump, who helped coordinate the first Gaming Awards at SXSW Gaming, of a heart attack on March 2 put a pall on the festival as it began. And after Interactive concluded, a horrifying car crash on Red River Street left three dead and many injured.

In addition, Interactive was caught up in a larger conversation that went national about over-branding at the fest and about whether Austin itself is getting too big for its indie-culture roots.

All fair. All valid. Much of it missing the point of Interactive, which has been (and continues to try to be) a celebration of ideas, of the connection of people (even those blanked out behind cellphone screens) and of the future and what we make of it.

There will be plenty of time between now and next March 13-17 to figure out what the fest might change and how it will address those challenges. But right now, I’m more excited about what this year’s fest told me about the rest of the year and how technology may evolve in our lives. Here are 10 ideas I came away with from Interactive. Not all of them made me optimistic about the future of tech, but they’re all things I’m glad I got to hear about.

1. Genetics as the future. Not everyone seemed sold on 23andMe co-founder and CEO Anne Wojcicki’s pitch about personal genetics testing. Her company offers a $99 kit that came under fire by the FDA for tying in health information to the product. But no one could argue with her main keynote point: We have the right to examine our own genetic makeup and to make informed health decisions based on what we find.

2. Science can be entertaining. Ratings are not exactly stellar for the new Fox science show “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” but they’re pretty great for the kind of show you would normally associate with public television or basic cable. The show’s host, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, delivered a SXSW keynote that was funny, informative and inspiring. We need more ambassadors like him to make science education less intimidating and more accessible not only to children but to adults who grew up with a distaste for hard science.

3. Internet cats are in danger. Last year, Internet sensation Grumpy Cat was all the rage at SXSW. This year, though she was back and drew a crowd, many attendees derided the feline and rolled their eyes at anything Internet cat-related. Let’s hope the trend hasn’t jumped the shark. Cats hate sharks, right?

4. Brands won’t ruin tech, but they sure will try. It’s not that marketing from big brands at SXSW was completely unwelcome. Many attendees were thrilled to get free rides from Chevrolet or to tweet for a free pizza from 7-Eleven. It was that so much of the branding was tone-deaf, incompatible with the fest’s themes and more aggressive than ever before. SXSW Interactive is an attractive audience for marketers: It’s full of early adopters with disposable cash and lots of online influence. But those attendees are also among the most likely to trash-talk a brand online than to sing its praises.

5. Virtual reality is almost ready for prime time. My favorite tech demo at the fest was of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality goggle technology paired with visuals inspired by “Game of Thrones.” It was mind-blowing, though with its wind machine and booth structure, not the kind of thing you’re likely to use at home anytime soon. But the goggle tech is real, and it feels like it’s going to change, at the very least, gaming. Sony agrees: It just debuted a VR headset prototype called “Project Morpheus” last week.

6. Indie game developers want you to feel and understand. The most affecting video game demo I saw at SXSW was for a game still in development called “That Dragon, Cancer.” It was inspired by the terminally ill son of game designer Ryan Green, who was scheduled to speak at the fest. Green cancelled, but the panel went on without him. It was difficult to hold back tears while watching the game play out; it’s a simulation, sensitively designed, of being a parent with a child who has cancer. I found it absolutely wrenching. Several days later, on March 13, Green’s son Joel died at the age of 5.

7. Wearables: It’s still early. We’ve been treating wearable technology like FitBit’s fitness trackers and Google Glass as if they should be as evolved as our smartphones, but it’s still very early in their evolution. Wearables, it seems, are where smartphones were five years ago. Still a little clunky, still lacking features we’d like to have, still not quite as useful and well-designed as they need to be. But that will change quickly.

8. Tech won’t kill handcrafted, in fact it might bring some of it back. Two areas to watch that I found fascinating: First, the Create space — which was for DIY/maker types to show off their wares and to teach others how to build items like drones, robots or even 3-D printed toys. Second was a large space for tabletop (as in board) gaming amid all the video eye candy at SXSW Gaming. Digital may kill lots of analog technology, but it’s not likely to stop us from wanting to work with our hands and to interact with objects that aren’t just virtual.

9. Disagreeing with what Snowden did doesn’t mean he’s wrong. I wasn’t surprised by the debate over NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s video-conference appearance at SXSW. Many consider him a traitor, and his exile in Russia seems ill-timed to say the least. But I was surprised by his call to action that we as citizens need to take more personal responsibility for securing and encrypting our own data from prying eyes (including those of the government). He could not have been more on-point.

10. Celebrities, for better of worse, are geeks too. Celebrity-spotting at SXSW used to be a fun diversion, but now you can’t turn around at the fest and NOT spot one. Why? Because many of them are also early adopters, addicted to social media and seeking to connect with gearheads, gadget gods and app wizards in their quest to stay relevant. Many stars, from comedians to actors to athletes, are investing in tech startups and not shy about coming to Interactive to promote what they’re doing. Stars: They’re just like us, but with more cash and Twitter followers.