SXSW Interactive 2016 – Surprising Trends And Big Changes In Technology

Every March, Austin Texas holds the South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) event, with an estimated 30,000 attendees this year in 2016. Dignitaries, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, marketers, programmers, and folks from every walk of life converge every year and make SXSWi what it is: A massive and exciting exchange of ideas. The show itself is built around experts teaching topic sessions on everything from digital marketing to robotics, and also corporate PR events highlighting technology or products. SXSWi is considered to be the biggest and most diverse event focusing on the intersection of people and technology.

2016 SXSWi Highlights:

The attendee in chief, Barack Obama became the first President to appear at South-By. In his speech, he made his case for the future of technology. And he encouraged the Technorati to allow government agencies to get into our devices. It was a hard sell.

And this year as always there were great sessions on web technologies and digital business. A/B testing, digital marketing, social strategies. The business focuses education sessions teaching lessons learned are foundational to the SXSW experience, and make it a ‘must attend’ event for companies and brands that connect with consumers over digital channels.

Virtual Reality was ‘kind of a big deal’ in 2016, with numerous displays of new VR tech. For my part, I tried one Korean startup’s VR headset and did not enjoy the experience at all. This technology runs small amounts of electric current into your head to simulate movement. It felt as bad as it sounds. I was immediately disoriented and stayed that way for over an hour until it wore off. I wanted to ask them what they were thinking but was too sick to do it. It seems that VR is going to be big, but it may be overblown in both media coverage and investment right now.

Governments and tourist bureaus continue to use SXSW as a soap box for telling their public relations stories. Cities like Tulsa OK, and nations including France, Brazil, Germany, and Japan sent delegations to SXSW this year. The promise of business development, and attracting investment and tourism has driven these investments in prior years, and there is no sign of the trend slowing down.

Robotics were a big hit at the show this year, with humanoid and playful takes on software-driven machine companions. The famous Japanese company Ishiguro Laboratories offered an unsettling look at humanlike robotics. Their approach seems almost to be a cross between performance art and computer science, and it is worth a look.

Transportation technology, particularly the advent of autonomous vehicles was a huge topic of conversation this year. The way we live in cities is about to undergo substantial change, and we are already seeing that the way we move around in our cities is radically changing with Uber and Lyft. Urban transportation will change even more when automated vehicles and smart city tech begin to take hold. On this front, the US Department of Transportation Secretary Foxx announced the seven finalist cities for his Smart Cities Challenge at SXSW.  The finalists are Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco. Six of these mayors gave eloquent if non-specific, pitches for how their cities will demonstrate the potential of the raft of new smart city technologies should they be granted the prize money.

Notably absent were the consumer facing ‘information startups.’ In prior years, startups have carried the day in this space. Twitter and Foursquare are notable, but in 2016, there were far fewer consumer software startups competing for attention. Productivity apps seemed to be absent.

Anthony Bourdain came again and drove big crowds. He has been at SXSW before – looking back to 2012, the Bourdain roadshow impacted the author signing event that I had for my Startup book at SXSW- even my closest friends went to see him instead of me. Thanks Anthony, I appreciated it. It was generous of him to support the Japanese contingent this year with an appearance at their 6th street expo on Saturday night.

Online harassment was a big issue in the lead-up to the event, with organizers canceling some planned content due to online threats that had been made. Backpedaling from a media firestorm that ensued, they then set up an online harassment summit to address the issue, but it was lightly attended.

Tacos always seem to play a ubiquitous role in SXSW for most attendees. The ‘biggest taco moment’ (if there can be such a thing) was found with the president grabbing a Democrat and a Republican at Austin favorite, Torchy’s Tacos. Add to that the taco restaurants and ubiquitous food trailers, and taco handouts at the trade show. Tacos everywhere, even as the simmering ‘breakfast taco war’ plays out between Austin and San Antonio. But I digress.

Local Austin attendees commented more than once that this year’s event had a somewhat sedate mood. With the exception of the always dirty and exuberant 6th street portion of South-By, the energy seemed to be neutral or even downbeat this year. While attendees that I talked with were all very glad to be a part of the event, the cumulative effect of everyone being together was comparatively quiet in 2016.

The “Most SXSW moment of the year” came while waiting for a session on Saturday. The session room was at capacity, and a line of overflow attendees waited outside for a chance to get in.  Those of us in line all realized at once that “waiting in a line outside of an overflow session while ignoring everybody around you by looking at your mobile device” was the most SXSW thing that any of us could be doing. It made it hurt less.

New this year was a group of food industry startups at the trade show. From cooking gadgets to a $1,500 prototype tea maker, there were some interesting stories in this space. My favorite startup was Safe Catch, a seafood startup that offers canned tuna in which they test every single fish that they use. Their story is that they engineered a new testing device for real-time detection of mercury and pollutants in fish. Nothing is less sexy than a can of tuna fish. But nothing is cooler than being able to feed your kids safe food. So I love them.

SXSWi is a great event. For all of its foibles and downsides (and there are many), there is no better way that I know of to meet such a diverse group of people and share in so many different kinds of ideas. It just wrapped up yesterday, I am already looking forward to SXSW 2017. I hope to see you there.

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Kevin Ready

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