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Inside SXSW Interactive 2013

Posted by: Forest Young on March 12, 2013

SXSWAs the 5-day SXSW® (@SXSW) Interactive Festival comes to a close today, it celebrates 18 years of providing a unique and unmatched culture of inspired creativity and international community. The combined entities of SXSW Interactive, Film and Music will be the highest revenue-generating event for the city of Austin this year with projections easily surpassing $200 million. 

While a predominantly start-up culture initially differentiated SXSW Interactive, the festival is now inclusive of both the bootstrapping entrepreneur and the corporate giant. As a festival veteran and attendee this year, I will try to distill the main themes that emerged from the 2013 talks and symposiums.


While SXSW Interactive continues to be a wellspring of inspiration for emerging and potentially disruptive technology, a growing number of panels focused on the societal outcomes beyond digital tools and platforms. Elon Musk (@elonmusk), an SXSW Interactive keynote speaker and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, delivered a well-received session. He stressed the application of technology to solve the problems of sustainable energy and "non-terrestrial" exploration. 

Former Vice President Al Gore (@algore) spoke at length about our "stalker economy" — how forms of surveillance are being monetized, such as check-in apps, RFID tags, embedded cookies and geo-location, and that we will inevitably reach an impasse. Apps such as Snapchat (@Snapchat) allow the privacy-conscious to enjoy being social without accruing a potentially incriminating digital record. 

The tech-savvy Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) lists among his many mayoral credentials an impressive Twitter following of 1.3 million people. He emphasized using social media channels to expand degrees of political and civic influence and, more importantly, as a potent vehicle for delivering hope and inspiration.

TED celebrity Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) returned to SXSW Interactive to discuss enhancements to her Make Love Not Porn properties — digital platforms that work to course correct sexual misconceptions stemming from hardcore pornography viewing. At the core of her multi-faceted and controversial initiatives, however, is a concern for more humane types of intimacy, reproductive health and safety. Always a provocative persona, Gallop, whose panel coincided with Al Gore's, tweeted: "At 3.30pm today, don't do @algore, do me. As it were :)"


Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee), inventor of the World Wide Web, spoke about the past, present and future state of the internet on Sunday morning. The Internet of Things — a term Kevin Ashton coined to describe the connected network of intelligent machines — was long foreseen by Berners-Lee, who was adamant that the Web be preserved "as a space where any compatible device works." Berners-Lee expressed excitement over the versatility of HTML5 and the surge in coding literacy. He also cautioned about potential threats to this expansive connectivity, namely ISP interference, state surveillance and a lack of robust digital rights management (DRM) protocol.

The frog SXSW Interactive opening party, titled "The Other Singularity" — a playful Kurzweillian twist, provided a compelling take on The Internet of Things, exploring how smart connectivity will extend to mundane gadgets and impact our lives in the future. Reminiscent of conceptual designers Dunne & Raby, the frog technologists exposed SXSWers to a crowd-sourced DJ jukebox platform, a robotic Zen gardener, smart Porta Potties and a user-device controlled "light as ink" installation.


Echoing the growing presence of hardware at the festival, SXSW featured exciting developments in wearable tech that introduced new form factors and HCI models altogether. Leap Motion (@LeapMotion) — a motion controller peripheral for PCs and Macs — debuted at SXSW with much fanfare. Designed for detecting precise hand gestures with little-to-no latency, the product boasts an accuracy 200 times that of its Kinect predecessor, and might someday be integrated into standard computer hardware. In the demos, drawing with your finger in the air appeared effortless, and the fidelity of the motion capture was remarkable. Leap Motion CEO and co-founder Michael Buckwald sees his product as a solution for faster modeling with 3D software in addition to the obvious gaming applications and will be available to consumers in May.

Google and its oft discussed Google Glass (@projectglass) technology stole the show on Monday as Timothy Jordan, Senior Developer Advocate and presenter, provided SXSW developers a first look at the Google Glass Mirror API and app integrations for Gmail, The New York Times, Evernote and Path. The glasses feature a small screen visible over your right eye with a microcomputer in the right arm of the eyewear. As Jordan flipped through news articles on his glasses in front of an awestruck audience, the excitement was palpable and served as a key element of Google's product socialization — a reminder that your digital products are only as good as the developers who are excited to continually redefine the envelope of possibilities.


There was a noticeable and shifting emphasis this year of hardware and devices over software and social apps and platforms. MakerBot CEO and keynote presenter Bre Pettis (@bre) introduced the "Digitizer" — a 3D desktop laser scanner that eliminates the need for computer-aided design (CAD). MakerBot (@MakerBot), along with MaKey MaKey from the MIT Media Lab (@medialab), Arduino microcontrollers (@Arduino) and the Raspberry Pi (@Raspberry_Pi), are ushering in a new era of affordable DIY power tools. 

This democratization of technology coincides with the proliferation of open source and entry level hardware projects and is part of a larger Maker Movement that supports STEM education and seeks to revive American manufacturing, and subsequently the economy, through a growing and technologically skilled labor force. Next year I'm anticipating another spike in hardware start-ups that will descend upon Austin.

Game of Thrones#SocialXSW

SXSW is an inherently social festival. Simple advice for a strong appearance in Austin: be memorable and be talked about. Internet star and meme sensation Grumpy Cat (@RealGrumpyCat) became an instant Austin celebrity as people waited hours to take pictures with the frowning feline. The Game of Thrones (@GameOfThrones) guerilla campaign was a smash hit as SXSWers took pictures of themselves on the Iron Throne in the Convention Center. Who would have thought that tech nerds would be drawn to Sci-Fi-/Fantasy?


While there was no discernible unveiling on par with the historic Twitter or FourSquare debuts, two apps and a platform did make an impression at SXSW, with social media chatter, investment and downloads to prove it. Takes is a camera app that transforms still photos into dynamic video, with filter and music options. MessageMe (@msgme) is a group messaging app that allows users to send rich content in addition to SMS, such as songs, videos and doodles. 

Realty Mogul (@Realty_Mogul), a real-estate crowdfunding platform won the HATCH pitch competition held at the 2012 SXSW Startup Village. The Los Angeles-based start-up provides a vehicle for "accredited investors to pool money online and buy shares of real property like office buildings, apartment buildings and retail centers."

This was the largest SXSW Interactive to date with an estimated 27,000 to 28,000 registered attendees. An optimal SXSW Interactive experience is a blend of inspiring and structured speaker sessions with the impromptu and organic discussions — convivial exchange that happens away from the official venues. I can't wait for next year’s festival.

Forest Young is Associate Creative Director at Interbrand New York.

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