Debrief: SXSW

For the last 8 years, I've ditched the final week of winter for Austin and SXSW. While not the most relaxing way to transition into Spring, it has become a ritual to immerse myself in 5+ days of fresh ideas, new technology, lots of music and conversation.

Each year there is anticipation within the tech / interactive community over what new app or technology will draw the most buzz, what controversial event will happen, what brand will have the most outrageous or talked about activation. This year presented a more thoughtful SX. Obama gave the opening Interactive keynote, Michelle Obama presented the Music keynote. The closing presentation for Interactive was Andy Puddicombe, who has a popular meditation app called Headspace. He spoke without slides or notes and took the 2500+ crowd through a 10-minute group meditation. It felt like a more mature SX, even though if you took a walk on 6th Street on any given evening, it was as raucous and rowdy as ever. 

Here are a few things that stood out at SXSW'16 that we'll undoubtedly be threading throughout our programming this year:

Virtual Reality was everywhere. Brands from Gillette to McDonalds had virtual reality offerings, and while odd to watch from the outside, attendees participated in droves - which means the experiences must have been very cool underneath those big VR goggles.

Smart cities, smart cars. Anthony Foxx, Secretary of Transportation, was at SXSW to highlight cities across the US that are leading the country in innovation and urban transportation. That, combined with a conference sub-track on the future of automotive, demonstrates how quickly we're moving towards a world of autonomous vehicles. And when asked what technology excites him the most, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales remarked "Driverless cars" - because of the secondary market opportunities it will spark.

Robotics. AI and robotics have been part of the conversation at SX for awhile, but this year took center stage as a few robots made appearances at the festival. IBM had a robot named Pepper welcome attendees to their Cognitive Studios exhibit and Hanson Robotics debuted Sophia, a lifelike robot that can make 62 facial expressions

Connected everything. It's no surprise that we're at the point where everything is connected - our devices, homes and cars to information, all personalized. But what is surprising is how companies are building the devices that we will use to connect. Sony Future Lab demoed a prototype device called the "N" - a neckband with speakers, camera, and ability to receive voice commands (think Walkman, Google Glass, and Amazon Echo all-in-one). In the Future Lab tent, attendees tried on the N with Sony engineers standing by to note user comments. The Future Lab is the R&D division of Sony that brings prototypes to the public in order to involve customers in the development process. And in the world of finance tech, Capital One demoed its integration with Alexa (Amazon Echo). So, along with asking Alexa to order products from Amazon and recite the top news stories of the day, customers can now check credit card and bank account balances, list transactions, and pay bills.