The future of tech and entertainment at this year’s Austin spectacular.
From humble beginnings 30 years ago, South by Southwest has grown into a hub of connected conferences showcasing new tech, music, media and entertainment. Helped in part by the reputation of its host city, Austin, Texas, as a party town with abundant live music venues and great bars, SXSW is now the place where start-up veterans and newbies rub shoulders with TV’s top executives, movie stars, unsigned bands and digital-industry disruptors. Here are five key takeaways from SXSW 2017:
Making Everything Better
Wellness and health start-ups were out in force at SXSW’s Interactive conference. Portal Instruments’ needle-free drug delivery system, developed at MIT, showed how a jet the size of a human hair might soon replace the hypodermic syringe. Wearables company Interaxon showed Muse, a headband that gamifies mediation by measuring brain signals and assessing the effectiveness of your calm moments. (A rival also on show, Thync, is said to elevate mood with electrical impulses.) An indoor farming system, devised by US firm Local Roots Farms to use fewer resources and less energy, can be set up in the back of a truck. It’s no wonder venture capitalists have their sights trained on health and wellness.
From countering online trolling to combatting cyber-hate and policing AI, the limits of what should and should not be allowed in the digital world were debated at length
Not ‘clean’ as in ‘environmentally sound’, but instead at SXSW many panels and talks centred on how to undo the dirty, nasty business of the online economy and social media. From countering online trolling to combatting cyber-hate and policing AI, the limits of what should and should not be allowed in the digital world were debated at length. In her keynote speech, Yasmin Green, director of R&D at Jigsaw, a technology incubator inside Alphabet, Google’s parent company, tackled the spread of fake news. “Access to information is a fundamental human right,” she said. “Deceitful content really does undermine the promise of the internet.” Any company with a product that can ‘keep news real’ will be of great interest to Green and her Silicon Valley peers.
The Reality Of VR And AR
VR/AR was the name of a standalone strand of SXSW 2017, befitting the increasing availability and uptake of the tech that augments or virtually recreates realities for both business and pleasure. At Sony’s Wow Factory exhibit, not all VR experiences required a headset: a room with four touch-sensitive screens as walls took users on trips to Machu Picchu or enabled music to be made. Swiss start-up Somniacs demonstrated its Birdly VR experience, with headset, bodysuit and movable rig that creates the sensation of flying. A fan even blows the wind through your hair. Meanwhile, augmented reality advances included Albert Einstein’s experiments and formulae brought to life, for a forthcoming TV series, Genius, about the great scientist, and Lampix, a start-up with a lamp-like object that projects AR onto any surface.
Jazz. Yes, Really.
SXSW began life in 1987 as a music seminar for 700 attendees, and the sonic arts remain a cornerstone of the conference. At this year’s event (72,000 registrants and attendants), jazz was far more prominent than in recent years, with many widely praised showcases and gigs, including a strong British contingent led by Mercury Prize-nominated GoGo Penguin. This is not your grandfather’s jazz, though, but the new version, infused with electronica and dance music. Elsewhere, the DJ Zane Lowe, formerly of BBC Radio 1, now at Apple’s Beats 1, used his keynote to suggest that, now that music needs artists with stories that impact beyond playlists, who “dream big every time” when they release albums and songs, such as Beyoncé’s multimedia-and-music Lemonade. His timing was impeccable: Spotify announced a trial of video content the same day as Lowe’s speech.
And Next Year’s Oscars Go To…
The film industry does not usually make a big deal out of SXSW, instead focussing its Q1 efforts each year on the Sundance Festival in January and the Oscars in February. At this year’s event, however, The Disaster Artist, a film starring and directed by James Franco, enjoyed its world premiere and received rapturous notices. Special praise was given to Franco’s co-star, his brother Dave Franco, with the words ‘Academy’ and ‘Award’ appearing in more than one review. If it seems early to making Oscar predictions, then know that The Disaster Artist is about the making of a cult film, The Room, and three of the last six Best Picture Oscar winners have had filmmaking plots or subplots (The Artist, Argo and Birdman). A semi-fictional documentary, California Dreaming, about wannabe actors and writers living in Los Angeles, was another movie-industry tale – a real-life La La Land – that lifted the crowd at its screening.