SXSW is the leading festival of ideas and technology for all things interactive, and an ideal way to heat check what’s in store for the 12-24 months ahead, according to some of the best in the business.
2017’s five day, jam packed program included an impossibly broad range of sessions, from ‘Weird Startups from the University of Tokyo’ and ‘Open Sourcing Data and Porn’ to keynotes from Buzz Aldrin, Joe Biden, Marc Jacobs, Kesha and billionaire entrepreneurs Chris Sacca and Mark Cuban. Add the expansive trade show, over the top parties and multimillion dollar brand activations dotted around downtown and you can see why the event draws close to 40,000 people from over 80 countries each year.
This year we took a team of five Hardhatters to spread out, take in, and bring back as much SXSW goodness as we possibly could. Between us, we clocked up almost 100 sessions, almost 100 tacos and almost 100 hours of total sleep for the week.
What did we learn? Great question.
1. Giddy Up: AI and Machine Learning
AI and Machine Learning were on everybody’s lips. From chatbots to streamlined accounting to ‘programmed creativity’ and self driving cars, it seems that nothing will be left untouched when the AI tidal wave hits. If you believe the hype, machines are already well on their way to eclipsing our pathetic human abilities across thousands of tasks and fields.
If you’re new to machine learning and AI, here’s a quick pitch:
As humans, many of the things we do (say, driving a car) are made possible because of our ability to recognise patterns. Today, machines are capable of recognising patterns far more efficiently than we are. Machine learning involves feeding machines huge amounts of data which is processed to 'learn' patterns and how to behave in varying circumstances. For example, a self-driving car program is fed hundreds of thousands of photos of 'stop' signs, captured at different distances, angles or lighting conditions, which is combined with the behaviour of a human driver (stopping), to teach it what a stop sign is, and what to do when you arrive at one.
Danny Shapiro, Senior Director of NVIDIA’s Automotive Business Unit (industry leaders in AI technology for the auto and gaming industries), described how four hours of feeding ‘stop’ sign photos into a computer was able to produce better results than two years of traditional programming. With this sort of efficiency, it doesn’t take much to imagine what sort of an impact AI will have on other complex, data-heavy industries like finance, sport and insurance.
According to Shapiro, the auto industry will soon be ‘stacking’ AI inputs from inside the car on top of those from outside. With cameras and sensors, our cars will be determining who’s driving, where they’re looking, what’s in their current blind spot, how they feel, whether they’re tired, happy, angry, distracted. Features, functions, alerts and warnings can all be activated accordingly.
AI was also covered by The Pentagon’s Will Roper in his ‘Future of Warfare’ presentation. In amongst themes of self organising drones and moving data from ‘exhaust fumes to fuel’, he spoke about the challenges of fighting an enemy whose machines were much smarter on day two of any war, than they were on day one.
We heard about how AI is already being used by Google in ‘Project Perspective’ to identify and shut down online harassment in real time. How it’s been adopted by Harley Davidson to find new audiences that match its existing customer database around the web. How It’s helped online retailers like Cosabella optimise their website conversion rates and boost sales by 30 and 40%.
One thing that came through loud and clear in every AI presentation, is that we’re truly just at the beginning of a revolution that’s moving at an exponential rate. Ray Kurzwell, Director of Engineering at Google remains confident that human level AI will be upon us in just 12 short years.
2. Steady On: Telling great stories, getting them in front of the right people
Storytelling, a 15,000 year old tradition, is nothing new for brands. What has changed, however, is the vast array of techniques being applied to it to maximise impact with the modern consumer. This year, SXSW presentations covered every conceivable angle on storytelling, from neuroscience to behavioural economics to A/B and multivariate testing.
Navin Iyengar, Design Lead at Netflix talked candidly about the company’s approach of designing different journeys, to suit different narratives, to achieve different definitions of ‘success’: “Goals are vague, metrics are specific” he said. When the business knows what metric a design is trying to hit (sign up, login, start streaming) it’s able to craft a story around that, providing ‘true north’ for the thousands of design decisions that will inevitably be made downstream.
Identifying the right channels to get brand stories out was also a much discussed topic.
Serial entrepreneur, digital marketing pioneer and bestselling author Gary Vaynerchuk talked at length about his ‘obsession with attention’, waxing lyrical about how Facebook video was ‘by far’ the most 'underpriced attention' available to advertisers today. He also lamented the rise in outdoor media prices over the last decade, when “everyone walking down the street or sitting as a passenger in a car is looking at their phone”.
Billionaire entrepreneur, Dallas Mavericks owner and ‘Shark Tank’ panelist Mark Cuban was also quick to talk about the prominence of social. “When it comes to placing content” he said, “ask ‘where are people killing time?’”. He went on to describe how for a long time, TV was the best antidote to boredom. “Through this lens” he continued, “Snapchat is the new TV for 13-22 year olds. Entertainment is always the best alternative to boredom.”
An insight filled presentation from Facebook’s consumer marketing team further emphasised the behavioural shift to social and mobile. Data revealed that mobile eCommerce has now eclipsed desktop eCommerce, particularly when consumers are commuting / on the go.
It was also revealed that social sessions have evolved beyond the ‘quick notification checks’; sessions are almost evenly split between 0-3 mins (30%), 3-20 mins (32%) and 20+ mins (37%), with the average consumer spending up to 4.5 hrs per day on their mobile.
3. Woah Nelly (at least for now): VR, AR and MR
Like 2016, VR, AR and MR (mixed reality) dominated a huge proportion of presentations, panels and trade show booths. From virtual property tours to bars crammed with ‘mixed reality experiences’ to obscure Japanese AR glasses that project images directly onto your retina, it was hard to avoid the pull.
This year, however, there appeared to be a collective understanding that things were going to take a little longer to catch on than we’d all hoped. After all, it’d been a full 12 months since we were all here in 2016, chugging the VR/AR kool-aid, and in a practical sense, nothing had really happened.
When attendees at the world’s leading technology conference don’t know a single person using VR in their daily lives, mainstream adoption feels like it’s still a long way off. Perhaps cruelly, this hasn’t slowed our expectations for what VR and AR can do, with many of the demos illustrating just how big the gap between our expectations and the current reality really is.
The one stand out was Sony’s ‘Wow Factory’, an interactive laboratory featuring some of the brand’s most advanced initiatives including a full body synth suit for gaming, a VR based cyber gym, musical instruments that could be projected - and played - on any surface, and human sized robots you could actually converse with.
Without a doubt, Sony bet big on SXSW, investing what must have been millions and flying out many of their top brass from Japan for the Wow Factory. Even if nothing felt particularly likely to turn up in our living rooms within the next 24 months, the brand set a new benchmark for brand activations if nothing else.
Overall SXSW17 delivered everything it was meant to; World class presentations, big ideas and actionable insights. Without a doubt, we’ll be back for more in 2018.