TBG’s Top 10 Takeaways from SXSW Interactive 2017

April 12, 2017 | Katie Templin & Mara Low

SXSW logo with women having fun in backgroundInitially a music festival, SXSW is now one of the most coveted and impressive interactive/digital conferences in the world. There were literally hundreds of sessions each day, covering everything from digital operations topics to Game of Thrones.

As we do each year, TBG took a group to SXSW. We tried to mix it up—attending talks that were directly relevant to our work at TBG, as well as fringe topics that were compelling but only marginally related to our jobs, and some events that weren’t applicable at all. The whole experience was a bit mind boggling—so much information in such a short time!—but we’ve done our best to distill it into our Top 10 takeaways. Whether you’re a seasoned SXSW veteran or a neophyte planning for next year, read on!

1. The SXSW Heuristics Take Some Getting Used To

The logistics of a conference of this scale is a learning experience in and of itself. Future SXSW newbies, take note.

  • It’s Incredibly Spread Out

Take your interpretation of “spread out” and multiply it by five to get a semi-accurate picture of how far away your day’s first and second “favorited” session might be from one another. If they’re not in the same building, it’s unlikely that you’re going to make back-to-back talks—especially if they have a hot topic or speaker. Our best tactic was to pick a building and camp out there for all or part of the day.

  • Arrive Early for Everything & Practice the Art of Preparation & Patience

SXSW is not your average conference, so you can’t plan like it is. Pick two, maybe three, sessions a day, and camp out. Arrive early (sometimes a full hour) and bring something to do, eat, drink and/or read while waiting. If you show up right when a popular session is starting, the chances are very slim you will get in. Semi-pro tip: go to the talk BEFORE the one you’re interested in (and know will be popular), and just stay in the room.

  • Devote Hours to the Cool Pop Ups & Free Experiences

Just like the SXSW conference sessions, there are a lot of options. There’s no way to do them all, so pick and choose what looks the most interesting to you, look carefully at hours of operation, and have backup selections in case the lines are long (which they will be for very popular sessions; make friends while you wait or proceed to your next pick if you feel like your time will be better spent moving on.) For scheduled events, like a show of some sort, get there at least an hour early. If it’s a pop-culture topic or one that’s open to all badge types, assume long wait times. In some cases you need to RSVP ahead of time, so before you spend time waiting, make sure you’ve checked the logistics for getting in. Maybe learn a magic trick or two to pass the time and entertain yourself and others queuing.

  • The SXSW App Is Useful But a Bit Wonky

We would have been lost without the app. It was really useful to see all sessions on the app and be able to star favorites to plan our daily itineraries with first picks and backup sessions. We’d like to see the 2018 app go further—passing on our recommendations for added key features to the SXSW 2018 planning peeps:

  • Expand the filtering options; include the time and place as options. Although some events had an RSVP requirement (many require booking in advance before the conference opens), for those that didn’t, there was no way of knowing if you had any shot at getting in until you were there, waiting. Having wait time or popularity projections (perhaps based on favoriting and room capacity) wouldbe hugely helpful for planning purposes.
  • Include a way to plot out your events on a map;
  • Provide notifications (once a favorited item was deemed full or simply to aid in discovery) of other events happening near you that had capacity; and
  • Aggregate a list of the events you had attended (they scan your badge at the door) and perhaps suggested future sessions based on what you’d attended so far.
  • Sometimes, You’ve Gotta Know Someone

Like most festivals, the best way to see it all is if you have connections in high and/or interesting places. Many after-hours events, especially, have VIP tickets in addition to the RSVP option available to the public. Odds are, if you aren’t a VIP, you aren’t getting in. SXSW is very much about networking. Special events are a currency, so it helps if you have something to offer in return. Network prior to the conference (see who you know that is hosting an event at SXSW and ask nicely to get on the list) as well as while you’re there. You never know if the guy or girl in front of you in line at the taco truck is someone or knows someone that knows someone else. Shout out to our partner Zivtech and fellow sponsors of the "Amplify Philly" event; thanks for a fun time kicking it with DJ Jazzy Jeff!

  • You Have to Try To Pay for Drinks & Food

Every popup has a bar. Most had snacks. Some had full-on meals. Beyond the pop-ups though, there were people swarming the streets with free food, drink offers, or merchandise to give away. If you were strategic, you could get by without having to pay for any food or beverages. Take full advantage and enjoy! We spent Saturday in search of interesting augmented experiences at the various sponsored pop ups, enjoying free hand crafted cocktails, ice cream treats and more. The Nat Geo Further Base Camp was worth a stop, where we nabbed “SXSW survival kits” and checked out Einstein’s iconic chalkboard transformed into an interactive robotic artist, sketching art from guest-submitted Twitter photos through an algorithm using Einstein’s words, symbols and equations as pixels.

2. Robots Are Taking Over

Robots are taking over the world—starting with SXSW! Almost 50 sessions were devoted to this topic at SXSW 2017. Here are some highlights:

  • Your New Best Friend

Perhaps the most significant, Japan Factory unveiled two new humanoid robots named Skeleton and U-chan that are capable of engaging in natural, human conversation. Robots are already equal if not surpassing humans in many skill sets—games, driving, and musical performance—and now are on their way to becoming our conversational companions.

roll of selfie pictures with robot

  • Your New Pet

While we were not lucky enough to catch these guys at the festival, we did get to meet the most adorable little home robot named Kuri.

Kuri responds to human touch with an affirming gaze and cheerful chirp thanks to built in "cap touch sensors" and gestural mechanics. Kuri can blink, "smile," look up and down, and respond to your voice and repeat what you say. Behind Kuri's adorable little eyes lies a live streaming HD camera that allow you to keep an eye on your home (and children?) while you are away. Mapping sensors keep Kuri safe from common household obstacles like furniture, stairs and other ledges. Built in processors allow Kuri to "map" your home and also handle face and voice recognition.

  • Your New Customer Service Rep

If you accept the premise that robots took over SXSW 2017, you might say chatbots were their ring leaders. Bots are not exactly new technology (the Twitter bot has been around since 2009), but chatbots are changing the tech industry and customer service operations. For more about chatbots, read our colleague Joan's blog post, "Chatbots & You."

3. VR/AR Are Here to Stay

SXSW proved that virtual reality and augmented (or mixed) reality are here to stay, and the applications go way beyond gaming.

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated simulation of a 3-dimensional environment that its users interact with in a seemingly real or physical way. Its users feel like they are experiencing and interacting in a virtual world firsthand. Long popular with gamers, visual artists are experimenting with this new media to simulate cultural experiences that may help drive social change.

For an immersive experience called "NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism," we put on VR headsets and sat in a salon-type chair and were transported to an otherworldly "Neuro-Cosmotology Lab" (reminiscent of a hair salon) where we were outfitted with “Octavia Electrodes,” or extensions that increase the sensitivity of your brain’s synapses. Women of color are at the center of this narrative experience—a first in this genre. Volunteers at the installation said that the project aims to portray women of color as technologists, engineers and scientists to break down stereotypes and to help eliminate prejudices.

With Augmented Reality (or Mixed Reality) you manipulate virtual objects with your physical body in the context of the "real" world at SXSW 2017, Japan Factory had "virtual bartenders" that came in the form of adorable, cartoon-like characters and provided product information about micro-brew beers. We also heard numerous case studies about companies that are using  AR as a medium for advertising and selling products. For example, BMW created an  advertisement in NYC that projected an augmented reality on a digital billboard using a real, live stream of the nearby street but where every car passing by was turned into a BMW.

4. You’ll Soon Be Betting iMarketing with Your iMessaging

"iMessage: The Next Marketing Gold Mine"
Speakers: Nick Dunham, Kelly McCarthy, Amanda Moore & Vivian Rosenthal

Messaging already has taken Asia by storm as a primary marketing platform, and the United States is likely next. U.S.-based companies like Nordstrom and Dunkin’ Donuts are marketing their brands through iMessaging and Facebook Messenger—and with great early success.

Before messaging can become a truly viable marketing platform in the United States we will need to see greater adoption of third-party, platform-agnostic messaging systems. The rise of messaging marketing in China can be attributed to the popularity of the WeChat messaging platform, which has 720 million users in that country. WhatsApp, another third-party messaging system, boasts 700 million users, with more than 80 percent penetration in Europe and parts of Latin America. Which messaging platform will takeover in the U.S? The race is on!

As part of messaging-based marketing, "stickers" are also rising in popularity among marketers.

5. Behavioral Targeting Has Real Benefits (& Real Dangers!)

“Cozy with Cookies: Our Brain & Behavioral Targeting”
Speakers: Archana Iyer, Christopher Summers, Jennifery Golbeck & Supriya Gokarn

The panel opened with an example of behavioral targeting going wildly wrong: Target knew (and inadvertently disclosed) a young woman was pregnant before her own father did. Think about that. Big brands most likely know more about you than your own family. And through traditional or digital marketing, those brands have the power to out you—your health, your relationship status, your interests—to your friends, parents, neighbors or coworkers.

How is it possible? It’s all about reverse engineering. Analysists look at known milestones—a birth, a wedding, a death, a graduation—and study the buying or browse behaviors that preceded it to create scary-accurate algorithms that can predict, not only the milestone, but what you’ll do next.

But not everything is black and white. For instance, a social study found that “smart” people had common social media interests. They all like science (makes sense), Colbert Report (of course), thunderstorms (who doesn’t?) and curly fries (wait, what?). Curly fries, the panel remarked, are a stand in for complex social constructs—the tendency to interact and socialize with people who have similar hobbies, backgrounds, and vices. And here is where the real danger of behavioral targeting and personalized content lies: the echo chamber. If you’re constantly fed a diet of opinions that align with your own or advertisements that exploit your weaknesses or fears, you risk a myopic (and severely skewed) view of yourself and the world around you.

What’s more, research has shown (per the panelists) that targeted ads can do more than just reflect yourself back to you. They can shape and change the way you see yourself. Users responded differently to ads they recognized as personalized vs those that weren’t. To the users, the targeted ads represented implied social labels, a definition of who they really are.

All of this begs the question: what’s the brand’s obligation? While personalization and targeting represent major opportunities for marketing and the bottom line, it’s important to maintain a balance. Personalization should be a highly-functional accessory to the overall experience, not the experience itself. Although nothing is fool proof, the best strategy is to focus on the user’s best interests and how personalization can help realize them.

6. Your Phone Knows What You’re Feeling

"When Your Internet Things Know How You Feel"
Speaker: Pamela Pavliscak

If SXSW taught us anything, it’s that our society has become irreversibly dependent on technology and that that dependence is likely going to get exponentially worse. We’ve become used to interacting through screens, to the point where people are almost uncomfortable in face-to-face situations. Our experiences are validated by social media and photographic proof, rather than memory and in-person relationships. We’ve even created new words to account for it all.

We are moving towards a world in which our entire lives are curated and controlled by computers. In so doing, creators and brands are capitalizing, trying to predict your mood, your whims, and your next move before you’re even aware of them. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer science fiction. It’s here. It’s emotionally intelligent. It’s watching—and judging—your every move.

Emotional recognition is already happening on social channels. We have algorithms to track people’s emotional states on sites like Facebook or Instagram. This data could be used in many ways, from marketing to outreach. Is one more ethical than the other? We know emotions spread, so if we can sense, by someone’s posts, the he/she is depressed, should we then manipulate his/her feed (the posts he/she sees) to try to help? Is it possible to understand someone simply from how they interact on a certain channel? Only with the proper context. Without context, it’s difficult to ensure that we’re reacting properly and proportionately. Someone could be completely different on Instagram than on Twitter, using them for different purposes, like work vs. personal.

Biometrics, often coupled with social media interactions, are also starting to play a part in emotional AI. This application is more pervasive in large events, like concerts, where users are asked to wear a bracelet and their biometrics are turned into data visualizations. While this technology can create an impressive graphic, quantifying emotion can be dangerous. Comparing one person’s emotional state with a larger group can have unintended consequences, leaving participants questioning whether they’re having the “right” feeling at any given time.

Manipulating or leveraging peoples’ emotions, regardless of the goal behind it, is crossing into an ethical gray area. Yes, it’s already happening, but with big brands working to build emotional recognition into their operating systems, it’s going to become more the rule than the exception. Users and organizations must remember that emotions are not binary. Over-simplification can have lasting and damaging effects on people (and/or the brand).

7. There Are Some Kicka$$ Women, Doing Some Kicka$$ Work

"Crossover of Future in Art×Tech by Women in Design"
Speakers: Tiffany Trenda, Wendy W Fok, Noa Raviv & A Dara Dotz

Women may still remain underrepresented in tech, but the "Crossover of Future in Art×Tech by Women in Design" proved that there are some seriously kicka$$ women, doing some seriously kick$$ work in the industry.

The panel featured four amazing women who discussed how technology interacts and intersects with the physical world.

Tiffany Trenda, a new performance artist, explores the relationship of the human body, particularly the female body, to technology through thought provoking installations and performances. She believes that "we are no longer living in the present but through the screen," and that this is changing how we form memories and how we interact with our physical world.

Wendy Fok, an architect, entrepreneur, professor and artist, is disrupting the home building industry through her "Resilient Modular Systems" project, which aims to bring innovative, inexpensive, eco-conscious building designs to developing nations.

Meanwhile, A Dara Dotz, is disrupting the manufacturing and supply chain using 3D printing to bring relief to communities in the midst of a disaster. As co-founder and principal designer of a company called Field Ready, she and her team have deployed to multiple countries around the world, where they taught locals to create medical supplies, replacement parts for clinics, water pipe fittings and more. They leave the tech behind to go beyond solving immediate needs, to foster long-lasting co-creation and resiliency in those communities.

8. Fashion Is a Place for Social (and Environmental?) Change

"All the Rage: Female Activism & Altruistic Design"
Speaker: Gretchen Jones

Too often, fashion is minimized to simple aesthetics, an accessory to vanity and an indulgence of the wealthy. Fashion is much more than “a look.” It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry and a vehicle for pushing social and political agenda. From the restricting idealism of the corset to women wearing trousers for the first time, fashion has been used as a tool to both control and liberate. These two paradoxical paradigms continue today. In January 2017, a UK woman was sent home for refusing to wear heels to work. That same month, we watched women flood Washington D.C. (and other cities around the world) with pink, knitted hats as a sign of solidarity and empowerment.

So, which side wins?

It’s up to us. We have the power to affect change. Here’s how:

  • Start at the top. 70+ % of the fashion industry, from agriculture to the C-Suite, is female. Only 6% of those women are in leadership positions. The more women ascend to leadership positions, the more the female perspective can be considered and represented.
  • Don’t just say (or wear) that you believe in Gender Equality. Do your research and understand who’s making your clothes, how they’re made, where they’re made, and who profits. Make sure it’s all aligned with your priorities.
  • Start valuing quality over quantity. Part of the issue is that we’re being trained to believe that we need that new blazer, or new pair of boots. Rather than investing in quality, ethically-made clothes that’ll last us a decade, we’re investing in “fast-fashion” that ends up in a Goodwill bin a year or even months later, often with the tags still attached. Invest in quality, not hype.
  • Money talks. Movements like #GrabYourWallet are helping to change the way companies view consumers and their own social responsibility. Brands are starting to cater to customers who care about how their clothes are made; the idea of service over product is starting to return. Do your research. Hold brands accountable. Vote with your dollars.
  • Remember the planet. Overconsumption means more waste. Materials matter, both in how they’re constructed and how they’ll, ultimately, affect (or not) the environment.

9. There’s Likely a Psychopath (or Two) Lurking Among Us

“Psychopaths in Silicon Valley: A Guide”
Speakers: Bryan Stolle, Jeff Hancock, Kate Niederhoffer & Michael Woodworth

The likelihood that at least one of my coworkers (or I!) is a psychopath is pretty much 100%. Or so claims the expert panel of “Psychopaths in Silicon Valley: a Guide.” While only .6-1% of the general population is clinically a psychopath, the percentage is a bit higher (4%) in corporate environments, and much higher at the management level (8%). Yikes.

But before you go off and start imagining your boss in a Dexter-style clean room and smock, let me set your mind at ease (sort of). Not all psychopaths are violent. And most are not murders. In fact, psychopaths are often successful, especially in the world of entrepreneurs.

So how do you know if your friend, date, or coworker is a psycho? Psychopaths exhibit the uncanny ability to mask amorality, lack of empathy, and callousness. They tend to be more successful or driven because they’re not motivated by emotional connections; they thrive on the ability to “con” and frequently blame others for their own actions. They’re impulsive. They’re overly confident.

Are you tallying up all the potential psychopaths in your life? You’re not alone. Per the panel, companies can lose 8-14 employees because of a psychopath coworker. Psychopaths will hand pick a lackey within the organization—someone who can help them, who’s valuable—and will charm and use them to get what and where they want within the company. For this reason, psychopaths are often perceived as “problem solvers.” When the lackey is no longer “useful,” the psychopath will drop them.

So, what do you do if you’re working with (or for) a psychopath?

  • First, if you’re the boss, don’t reward the problem solvers. Reward the problem anticipators. The psychopath is often fixing problems they created themselves.
  • Use written communication whenever possible. Text-based communication is like a shield when facing psychopaths. It limits the odds of being manipulated. Psychopaths feed off visual and body language cues. They like to see their handiwork, to toy with you. Don’t let them.
  • Maintain a poker face. Psychopaths mimic emotion. If they can’t read how you’re feeling, they won’t be able to simulate it themselves.
  • Try to see it coming. Psychopaths try very hard to make you feel like you’re having your needs and values met, while you’re doing the dirty work. Be aware and take time to assess your satisfaction and comfort level.
  • If all else fails, get out. Only you can decide when enough is enough.

10. Music Can Heal

“Movement Tracks: Where Biotech and Music Converge”
Speakers: Cassie Shankman, Hope Young, Stephen Bartlett & Tony Hamilton

No one disputes music’s psychological (and emotional) effects. You turn on something up-tempo when you’re working out, classical when you need to focus, and a ballad when you want to wallow. But the Music Tracks Project is taking it a step further. The program is merging music and technology to deliver predictable, precise, personalized medicine to people afflicted with movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s, Cerebral Palsy, or MS.

The program leverages neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to remap lost connections—using music to create external triggers for movement when the brain isn’t sending those signals on its own.

The team is composing original music specific to the needs of different patients, considering not only the tempo needed for different conditions and age groups (many of which are well below those that can be found even in a waltz), but also the sensory invocation of the music. The compositions match the physical movement need with strategic instruments and sounds to invoke pushing, pulling, or forward motion.

In the beginning, though, it was not the lack of music that was the obstacle, but rather the recording technology, or lack thereof. To work, the music must be full analog (DSD) sound. Live music. MP3s and other well-known recording mechanisms used bandwidths that were too narrow for successful treatment. The project, through a partner, has solved this issue. The recording technology being used is patent-pending.

While the project has already achieved great results, their goal is to use predictive analysis and send corrective signals, using wearables, to a patient before a disruptive event happens. The group also plans to move beyond movement disorders to other conditions, including cardiac.

Always a whirlwind of new experiences, information, and connections, SXSW 2017 elicited both excitement and reflection about our future and our relationship with technology in this day and age. Here at TBG, every year, we look for ways to incorporate SXSW takeaways into our work. Despite the lines and frenetic pace of the conference, SXSW is still always a great opportunity to get out of our day-to-day routine and get a glimpse into the larger global digital space. This year’s conference certainly provoked our thoughts and perspectives on the intersections of technology, culture, society, and everyday life—SXSW, see you in 2018!

About the Authors

Katie Templin

I'm the Director of Digital Strategy & User Experience at TBG, and I like to watch TV. Ask me about the user experience of Netflix.

Mara Low

I am the Manager of Digital Strategy & Optimization with TBG. When I’m not crafting user experiences, you’ll  likely find me fire hula hooping, hiking, or creating up-cycled art.

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