Tech trends and presidential history in Austin at this year’s SXSW
More than 30,000 participants converged on Austin last year for South by Southwest, and this year should be another tech-and-arts conference for the books.
Around 135,000 attendees were estimated to have visited Austin for the interactive festival. Last year, the show reigned in over $317 million for Austin’s local economy. But what is SXSW? The eccentric week where original music, independent films, and emerging technologies converge. And sponsors vary from big brands to even bigger brands: think Mazda, McDonald’s, and Budweiser.
Why This Year Stood Out
It will be hard to top this year’s guest speakers. POTUS and FLOTUS made appearances, director J.J. Abrams talked new projects and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Pat Benatar and her husband chatted about their evolution as rockstars. Food—and craft beer—at SXSW is notoriously a growing interest, while comedy, gaming, and sports were integrated into the 30th incarnation of the annual event.
“The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SXSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas. (And maybe have a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences.)”
-SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson
Over the course of a week, the 30th annual South by Southwest Music Festival brought around 2,200 bands, 25,000 to 30,000 leaders, journalists, and fans from the music-industry for a true test of endurance. Workshops, panels, gigs, and parties are part of the growing event.
“We cannot solve the problems in government and we cannot solve the problems that we face collectively as a society unless we, the people, are paying attention.” -President Barack Obama
President Obama, a.k.a. “The Attendee in Chief,” was South-By’s first president in attendance. His keynote kicked off the conversation encouraging future tech to make room for government agencies. The goal was to connect with digital influencers who can understand, engage, and drive the conversation when it comes to complex issues faced by the U.S. government, private sector, and nonprofits.
Notable quotes from POTUS’ SXSW keynote:
“We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast. And this gathering brings together people who are at the cutting-edge of these changes. Those changes offer us enormous opportunities, but are also very disruptive and unsettling.”
“So the reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.”
“How can we create safe, secure, smart systems for people to be able to vote much easier online, and what are the technologies to help people get aware of what they’re voting about, who they’re voting for — that’s, again, an issue where you don’t want the federal government engineering all that. But what we can do is to have the incredible talent that’s represented in this auditorium really spend time thinking about that and getting to work on it.”
The President wasn’t the only government figure to use SXSW as a platform. Tulsa, Oklahoma, France, Brazil, Germany, and Japan all sent delegations to attract investment, tourism, and business at this year’s event.
South by Southwest Interactive weighed in on the heated, ongoing dialogue concerning innovation vs. regulation, especially that between Transportation Network Companies (TNCs, like Uber and Lyft) and Austin policymakers backing an increase of regulatory measures.
What tech trends actually matter?
SXSW Interactive is SXSW’s tech conference known for taking the likes of Twitter, Snapchat, Uber, and Lyft to new influential heights.
J.J. Abrams-funded KnowMe stood out as a content creation app fusing audio, photos, and video footage in one virtual expression. Tech trends were reinforced as virtual reality technology dominated SXSW conversation.
Love the vocals, but not all about that bass? Life-changing HearBuds won SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards’ Best in Show. They offer customized listener experiences for users via phone app to control crowd noise and sound levels.
Attendees were morphed into DJs through SXSW sponsor Bud Light’s partnership with Novalia and Mediacom, where interactive music walls could alter music through touch, connectivity, and data.
Sony’s Future Lab drew intrigue at the Austin festival. The initiative’s goal is to provide “an open creative environment and direct lines of communication with society, through which it aims to co-create new lifestyles and user value in the future.” A prototype dubbed “Interactive Tabletop” had a holographic-like projector that integrated augmented reality, gesture sensors, and motion tracking to superimpose data on top of real life. Fun, right?
Lily Camera is not just any drone. With no setup required, you can toss this little ninja of a drone takes into the skies to record your every outdoor move thanks to a wrist-mounted tracker. SXSW bestowed LIly with its 2016 SciFi No Longer award for the “coolest scientific achievement of discovery that before 2015 was only possible in science fiction.”
Capital One announced a revolutionary feature for Alexa-enabled devices—Amazon Echo, Amazon Tap, Echo Dot, and Fire TV—where customers can use voice commands to receive statements or pay bills through their bank accounts and credit cards. Welcome to hands-free bill pay, ladies and gentleman.
Despite legendary Austin BBQ offerings, the McDonald’s Loft across from the Austin Convention Center was a hot spot for festival attendees. Virtual reality amplified hangouts through HTC Vive glasses, controllers, and headphones to explore giant Happy Meals. Guests were prompted to customize their experience with virtual paints, lasers, and an assortment of balloons, which could be printed and shared via email or texted GIF. Zapping butterflies may have also been involved.
While not all SXSW buzz is beneficial for fledgling ventures—ahem, reminisce back to how post-SXSW Meerkat fared last year—the tech world is chomping at the bit in Austin for a new hit.
Prominent moments amidst the line of viral fire:
Goldman Sachs’ Investment Management Division announced its purchase of Honest Dollar. CEO William Hurley—but call him “Whurley,” please—has gleaned $3 million in seed funding for Honest Dollar throughout 2015 to invest in the company’s mission to assist small and medium-sized business employees, 1099 employees, and the self-employed with setting up retirement plans.
“We set out with a singular focus: to revolutionize the retirement industry and reach individuals who historically have been underserved,” said Whurley.
You-Tube co-founder, Steve Chen’s app Nom seeks to live-stream cooking “shows” where the dazzling and the talented vie for an interactive following. Nom’s broadcasted favorites feature a spaghetti-obsessed couple and a bed-and-breakfast owner serving up sci-fi themed brunch.
“There will be people who are fun to watch because they’re entertaining, and those who are genuinely amazing chefs,” says Chen. “Getting good press is one thing. But we’re only going to see big numbers if we can sustain the interest we are seeing now.”
A relatively effervescent Anthony Bourdain joined the conversation to address the future of virtual travel tech trends:
“We are looking at an inevitable situation where you will be able to go online probably with Oculus and be able to walk down the streets of Tokyo and look in every direction and have Jeremy Irons whispering in your ear saying ‘to your left on the third floor is an excellent izakaya… But I’d hate to think that people do that and then just not go. It’s only a matter of time before you can smell the room from the safety of your couch.”