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How SXSW Captures Pop Culture

Seventy-five thousand people descended on’s Austin, TX, for the nine day South by Southwest (SXSW) conference that wrapped on Sunday, March 18. The conference has grown by leaps and bounds over its twenty one year history. What started as an indie music festival has grown to include many if not all of the major movements in our culture including Film, Comedy, Interactive, Education, and Government. It’s impossible to take in all the conference panels, marketing activations, screenings and performances that are offered, both as an official part of the festival and as side events. It’s like CES without the cars, refrigerators, and miles of gadgets. Everything is within a mile of the Austin convention center, so it’s easier to get around, and with your badge, participants get a free drink every afternoon. What’s not to love?

The amazing South by Southwest Festival 2018.

Experiential brand marketing was all the rage at this year’s SXSW. They’re calling these “activations”, a relatively new word in marketing which refers to an experiential launch or relaunch of brand beyond product. Companies like Google, Dell, HP, and Bose took over entire houses, or in the case of HBO’s Westworld, vast outdoor spaces, to create experiences without selling products in order to create a deeper, more lasting connection with consumers. The attendees at SXSW aren’t just any consumers, they are first adopters; they’re influencers. Unlike CES, there are no gangs of business types, only creatures of culture to infect with ideas which, like a virus, spreads around the world with them after they leave SXSW.

The New York Times hosted an off-site event which featured several talks by its tech and culture writers. Nelle Bowles (L), and “the Tom Wolfe of Silicon Valley”, Mike Issac (R)

Even media companies themselves, like Fast Company, Vice, Quartz, and the New York Times created places and events within or adjacent to SXSW in order to directly connect their brand with the newest thinking about culture, media, and technology. They were not selling anything but their brands. Very meta. Even counties like Canada, Brazil, and Austrailia got in on the action. And there are free drinks everywhere, provided as catnip to lure participants. If you’re into day drinking, cheap, easy oblivion awaited, though at $1000+ plus for a pass, this is hardly the way to get your money’s worth.

An idea whose time has come: Bose prototype AR glasses utilize Alexa, which may be a more effective way into the brain than optics.

One thing that made a big impression on me and speaks to larger trends in the development of Augmented Reality (AR): Bose audio’s approach which naturally emphasizes sound over vision. They key word in Augmented Reality is reality. As John Fan of Kopin pointed out in a keynote at AR in Action (ARiA) in January, you can’t overwhelm the field of view with a constant stream of data. The other way into the brain is through sound, which I’m now convinced AR will incorporate in a big way. For example, let’s say I want to identify people I see or meet at the conference. With an earbud and wearing AR glasses equipped with computer vision, I might be able to identify contacts in my social graph. Instead of stuffing the information into my field of view, perhaps a red light blinks next to the person, and Alexa or another program whispers their name and other information in my ear. I’d simply tap the wing or gesture to get more. Reality isn’t occluded, and it doesn’t require reading. What about language learning? The same approach might be preferable to seeing text.

Steven Spielberg, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Ben Mendelsohn, Zak Penn, Tye Sheridan, and Ernest Cline take the stage to introduce “Ready Player One” at the popup premiere of the movie on March 11th. In theaters March 29th.

No activation was as exciting or as impressive as the launch of Steven Speilberg’s sci-fi masterpiece, Ready Player One (RPO), on which I lavished two in-depth columns last week. HTC and Warner Brothers took over a two-floor warehouse near the convention center and put us inside the set of the movie, with full-scale props and the introduction of eight demos of new VR experiences. These are all now live and free on steam. I’m not a movie reviewer (as a Forbes editor reminded me) but I did write a breathless fan-boy recap of my experience of the movie at a nearby hotel bar with tears of joy running down my face.

The “Ready Player One” activation put me inside the world of the movie. Here’s the tunnel from the VR start up sequence in the movie.

The conferences featured hundreds of keynotes and panels, many, like the presentation of my book on Monday, March 12, were standing room only. (Side note: I am still filled with gratitude that so many found my approach to these new mediums worth listening to).

Hundreds were turned away from my talk and the book signing after. I know it sounds like bragging but I’m just reporting the fact. I was asked to give an encore presentation the following day.

Ernest Cline, the author of the book Ready Player One, on which the Spielberg movie is based, gave an inspiring and informative interview to a packed house. Cline started his career as a screenwriter (his first movie, “Fanboys”, was secretly released) before turning his attention RPO, which astonishingly was his first novel. “Writing a novel,” he said, “is like directing a movie on paper.”

“Ready Player One” author Ernest Cline, interviewed by David Baszucki.

Nonny de la Pena, a pioneering producer of VR content which pre-dates the Rift, gave a comprehensive presentation of the work her Emblematic Group is doing. Using volumetric capture and photogrammetry her studio uses its own proprietary tools to make dramatic recreations of real events. Her “Greenland Melting” experience, featured in the SXSW Virtual Cinema, was produced in association with PBS Frontline and NOVA. It puts the user next to life-sized sized NASA scientists trying to understand the melting of polar ice, and speculating on the dramatic consequences of global warming. It really sticks with you.

Santa Fe based artist collective Meow Wolf was also featured in the Virtua Cinema, as well as a documentary feature about their work. In addition to making new VR content, the company runs a popular Location Based Entertainment center in Santa Fe. Their experience, “The Atrium”, turns you a mouse under a bed, a brilliant use of scale. Although unfinished, it is memorable as it is original, as is the preshow and themeing around it. Following the conference, Meow Wolf announced a partnership with Magic Leap to bring their original art to the new platform. Also in the Magic Leap stable was comic distributor and production company, MadeFire, which brings dimensional animation to a traditionally 2D world. Their site, which features creation tools for artists, demonstrates why they, too, are premiere partner for Magic Leap’s coming Creator’s Edition AR glasses, to be released later this year.

Themeing around Meow Wolf’s attraction inside the SXSW Virtual Cinema.

I also had a chance to experience SPHERES, directed by Eliza McNitt and executive produced by Darren Aronofsky’s Protozoa Pictures, which inked the first ever seven-figure deal out of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section. Now I know why. The mind-bending deep space physics lesson should be seen by every student, and every person, in the world. We get to experience star formation, black holes, and, perhaps most interestingly, the sounds of deep space.

Angel Giuffria, an amputee with a high-tech prosthetic arm, is a bionics advocate and actress who attended South by Southwest to demonstrate her lifelike robotic hand.

The SXSW Innovation Awards celebrate “the most forward-thinking developments in the connected world.” These prestigious honors are given out in 13 categories each year from Medical and Media, to Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence, as well as an overall “Best in Show” award, which this year went to Unanimous AI, which also won top honors in the AI and Machine Learning category. The company has pioneered a new form of AI known as Artificial Swarm Intelligence or “Swarm AI.” Modeled after swarms in nature, the technology connects groups of people into real-time closed-loop systems, amplifying human intelligence. Sometimes referred to as an artificial “Hive Mind”.

Another Innovation Award winner was a Location Based installation made for Lego House in Billund, Denmark by Trigger Global of Los Angeles. Kids make a lego fish and they are able to then insert their design into a virtual fish tank and watch it swim and interact with its environment. You have to see it to believe it.

One of the most extraordinary demos I saw at SXSW was the result of a chance meeting at party with my friend Chandra Devam, Co-founder and CEO of ARis MD, which uses AR to map diagnostic images onto patients. She knows me well enough to know I should meet her friends at Eyecandy Labs. Eyecandy has developed what they call Augmentv, which is a patented method of using video to activate AR applications. They were a runner-up for an innovation award. This is an important step that could have a big impact on the industry. We met in a hotel lobby for fifteen minutes and they showed me their demo.

I got another side demo right before the panel “Bringing People AR/VR Through Interactive News”, which was moderated by yours truly and featured Ray Soto of USA TODAY NETWORK, Sarah Hill of StoryUp, and Joey Marburger of the Washington Post. Right before the panel in the green room, I got a demo of USAToday’s new mobile AR app, which gives a new dimension to rocket launches.

A new app from USAToday which allows users to watch and track rocket launches with their mobile device, and place these objects in the real world, will be released at the end of March.

They usually don’t let you speak and moderate, but they were desperate, I guess.

More than anything else, SXSW is a place for conversations. The two most notable ones I had were with HP CTO Shane Wall, who explained in some detail the company’s 30-year vision and the mega-trends that will change society and therefore their business. He described a distributed future of hyper-globalization and world scale 3D printing. I will certainly be writing about this more in the near future.

I was also lucky enough to spend an hour with Deloitte’s Vice-Chairman, Jay Samit, who is solving the billion dollar problems of the Fortune 500. His mission, Samit told me, is “to pull the future forward”. Indeed, that seems to be the great unifying theme of SXSW, the world’s most unique and compelling pop culture conference.

Lampix — a truly interactive tabletop augmented reality system that uses machine learning to recognize, reveal and react to the visual world, officially launched its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter Monday, March 19.

DC brought the Batmobile to Austin.

On the convention center floor, a mash-up of startups, film commissions, and established companies competed for attention.

This seems unsafe. Just saying.

It would not be SXSW without rock n roll and bar-b-que.

This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on March 20, 2018

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