For all the buzz and hype SXSW Interactive racks up every year, it always seems to come and go with amazing speed.
So I thought I'd try to make sense of it by putting together a brief recap of the single greatest event celebrating startup culture on the planet.
SXSW Interactive, just to remind you, is part of South by Southwest, an annual set of film, interactive media and music festivals and conferences in Austin, Texas,
Waiting for a Breakout Brand
SXSW Interactive has developed a reputation as the mecca for startups in part because it helped Twitter make a huge splash back in 2007.
There have been other breakout technologies and brands over the years. Meerkat and its video-streaming technology became a runaway darling of last year’s event with the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus using it to promote her cable show Veep.
Of course, even the hottest technologies can quickly lose traction — as evidenced by Meerkat's recent decision to throw in the towel on streaming.
Alas, this year had no single breakout brand or tech phenomenon sweeping the geek-fueled festival.
There were the usual established brands like Sony and Samsung. McDonald’s came back again and continues to think it will discover a secret tech widget that will make it a desirable destination for millennials.
We even saw a mob of bipedal bananas from Chiquita. Apparently some corporate marketing genius figured out that there aren’t enough tech-savvy millennials eating their daily bananas and so arrived on scene in bright yellow banana costumes.
With daytime temps hovering around 85 degrees those bananas must have ripened fast under the Texas sun.
VR Rules Them All
While it’s not fair to say that VR (or virtual reality) was a breakout technology given that it’s been around for many years, it certainly was widely embraced, pedaled and promoted.
From Samsung showing off its wares at the Samsung Gear VR Lounge to lots of other brands using VR to give festivalgoers a new, up-close-and-personal experience. I took a tour of sunny Puerto Rico courtesy of Rums of Puerto Rico at the #WorkHardPlayTropical party and found myself surrounded by gorgeous beaches, azure blue waters and impossibly bright skies.
The iRobot event featured more robots than in previous SXSW Interactive events. There were some on the tradeshow floor that looked like a college robot project — indeed one was build by Virginia Tech engineering students — but the one that stole the show was Sophia, a female humanoid robot built by Hanson Robotics.
In what almost seemed like a scene straight out of the thriller Ex Machina, Sophie came out under wraps with the help of her human helpers. She even held a press conference, taking questions from journalists, giving incredibly realistic facial expressions and bringing home just how close robots are to becoming a feature of our daily lives.
From the ER to customer service (“may I take your order, please”), we may only be a decade away from seeing robots in retail, restaurant and healthcare settings.
Merge the features of Sophie’s life-like face with the uber functionality of Atlas from Boston Robotics and you could see a new generation of worker robots doing everything from warehouse work to bartending.
(Of course, all this was before this week's well-publicized meltdown of Microsoft's AI Twitter bot, Tay. So who is to say where all this will lead?)
Part of the hype and continued vitality of SXSW Interactive as a must-attend technology conference is the attendance of media outlets. While there were media onsite, there were not nearly as many as in past events.
Long gone is the CNN multimedia team and the CNN Express Bus. Which begs the question: are the media jaded by the SXSW Interactive hype and circus-like atmosphere?
With no epic tech brand launches that rival Twitter’s epic launch back in ‘07, are many outlets simply giving it a pass?
Mashable attended, but TechCrunch was noticeably MIA. While I didn’t expect TechCrunch to repeat its epic party on Rainey Street from last year, there weren’t any daily dispatches from the tradeshow, a fact I found worrisome given its stature in the tech media universe.
The Wall Street Journal took a rain check, too, although Jennifer Valentino-DeVries participated in a panel on encryption.
President Obama made an impromptu stop at SXSW Interactive, perhaps giving it the biggest boost of all this year in terms of relevance and star-power.
He showed up to talk tech, cyber-security and the ongoing Apple-FBI brouhaha. He came, the crowds swelled, he left and SXSW Interactive returned to its normal tech bacchanal. (You can watch his entire keynote convo here.)
SXSW Interactive fireworks started early when the conference organizers cancelled two panels designed to address the anti-feminist behavior and outright misogyny present in much of the male-dominated gaming world.
Anonymous threats were made back in October 2015 when the panels were announced and the conference organizers freaked out and promptly canceled them.
After several media outlets threatened to pull out, the panels were added back and SXSW Interactive announced it would do a special Harassment Summit to address sexual harassment in the gaming world.
In the end, the panels were sparsely attended, with zero attending controversy. Alas, it was an important issue lost in the madness of SXSW Interactive and sheer volume of expert panels. Because it was such a non-event, the media didn’t give it much airtime.
Mapping the Future
Attending SXSW Interactive this year gave the impression of a festival well into its adulthood, perhaps even entering middle age.
Does this mean that it is no longer the must-attend event for innovative tech companies? That remains to be seen.
Several forces are aligned against the venerable festival, not the least of which is Austin’s incredible traffic congestion and exponential population growth.
Ten years ago, Austin, like SXSW, was a relatively unknown, authentically-hip, laid-back place to come hang out downtown, discover great Tex-Mex, sip margaritas and splash around the many spring-fed pools and Lady Bird Lake.
Austin is still a great place to come visit, but I think the media is less “in love” with its quaint, eclectic Texas charm. It’s grown up. It’s gotten a few pimples along the way.
The pervasive attitude in the media is that Austin should fend for itself; no more free publicity endlessly promoting the city to the world.
In other words, SXSW Interactive (and Austin) will have to continue to reinvent what it means to be a relevant technology festival in a fast-changing world.
Keep Coming Back Y’All
Nothing lasts forever. But sometimes things can stay current, relevant and fresh with enough elbow grease and creative license.
Because SXSW as an event is at its core all about performance, I truly think that it will continue to remain relevant.
In SXSW’s favor are the music and film festivals that run alongside of Interactive; it completes the performance trifecta. Today’s technology is as much about how to bring entertainment to the masses, as it is anything else.
Facebook is a social network and entertainment vehicle.
YouTube brings millions of hours of music and entertainment-oriented video to millions of consumers.
The newest technologies that promise to crack a billion users one day all revolve around a form of entertainment — albeit in the form of connected social networks.
Consider Snapchat. It started as a simple chat platform with “disappearing” chats. It then began adding new features like filters, drawing, daily lenses, face swap, etc. Why?
Because users (millennials mostly) keep themselves entertained for hours on end sending funny and frivolous pictures and videos.
No, SXSW Interactive was not the epicenter of the very latest successful product launch. That’s an absurd goal, really.
It can, however, continue being the premier event for techies, geeks, media and fans to come together to celebrate the creative forces needed to propel innovation.
It’s why startups looking to tap into a global tech ecosystem in a brief four days should come learn from the greats, challenge the establishment and make scads of connections from all walks of life.
Established tech brands — especially in the consumer space — should continue coming back, if only to grab some of the limelight available for tech leaders launching new innovations.
Austin may be growing up, even getting a little bloated on the edges. But it’s still a great city, and it opens its arms wide every year to people from around the world bringing their best ideas, creations and performances.
It’s why you should come back to SXSW next year — and the year after, and the year after that.
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