Thanks to the annual SXSW Conference and Festivals, the brain power emanating from Austin in the middle of March was almost palpable – it seems like everywhere you turned in this Southern city there was another insightful talk, intriguing pop-up and exciting development around cutting-edge technology.
The themes surrounding the SXSW Interactive Festival this year were diverse and far-reaching. From talks that explored modern-day activism and how business can be used as a catalyst for social good, to the intersection between science and storytelling and why fashion is poised to be one of the next big disrupters in the tech industry.
Big names ranging from political luminaries to leaders in the fields of film, business and technology graced the stage as speakers, extolling words of wisdom and advice on their captive audiences – many of which waited for hours in order to snag a seat inside.
Former Vice President Joe Biden implored attendees to use their technological expertise to help solve the cancer crisis for good.
“You’re the future.” -Joe Biden
“You’re the future,” Biden said. “Many of you are developing technologies and innovations for purposes large and small, fun and serious, entertaining and life saving. They have nothing to do with cancer, but you can make a gigantic impact.”
Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey and a veritable social media darling, also imparted wise words for the crowd, telling attendees at his opening keynote that love is the way forward during times of political discord.
“Love says I see you. I recognize your dignity, your value, your worth,” said Booker.
EMPATHY + THE INTERNET
“There’s something so simple about allowing people to connect with each other.” -Lance Weiler
The empathetic vibes spilled over into some of the breakout sessions too. Virtual Reality is quickly becoming a device that can be used to bridge gaps in understanding between cultures, transporting people into situations and locations dissimilar from their own. This need for empathy is greater now than ever before, and was a big buzzword at this year’s festival.
One session introduced a new endeavor called Empathy Lab, a partnership between Refinery29 and the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab. Here attendees witnessed firsthand the power of empathy, via a series of exercises that sought to shift the way they saw the world – and each other.
“There’s something so simple about allowing people to connect with each other,” said Lance Weiler, founder and director of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab.
DEVICES OF THE FUTURE
A visit to the SXSW tradeshow was a peek into all the cool gadgets, tech and games people were obsessing over. From an electronic tattoo by Rotex with biometric sensors embedded inside, to 3D-printed shoes from Feetz and the Neko Electro posture-correcting headband, there was plenty to nerd out about.
Ever dream that you can fly? Birdly by Somniacs brings that childhood wish to life. The VR experience pairs with a full body apparatus that allows you to flap your “wings” as you soar through the air. Unlike other flying VR experiences, there is no joystick or controller here. It’s all you.
FROM ACROSS THE POND…
Historically, the UK has been the largest international delegation to attend SXSW and this year was no exception. At the Great Britain House, a three-story enclave that took over Speakeasy on Congress Avenue, festivalgoers could experience a virtual orchestra, VR activations and displays from a host of tech-savvy UK companies.
There was also a head-to-head “Tech Off” series – like a rap battle for tech enthusiasts – where speakers fought it out on the roof and got creative about what the future holds for our world.
Another popular spot at the trade show was the NASA station, where people could learn how to collaborate with the agency as citizen scientists, get the latest information on recent missions – like the Juno mission to Jupiter – and use a special VR station to experience the Orion spacecraft.
ART + SCIENCE
Museums of the future will seek to create physical experiences in a digital space. By combining design, art and technology, exhibits will be able to immerse visitors in an experience no matter where they are. (No museum required.)
Of course, visiting a museum in person will have its own unique flair too.
Imagine a future where VR can make the animal displays at the Museum of Natural History in New York come to life, or where open source data can inform digital displays at an art museum in real time. It’s already starting – but we’re just at the beginning. Art and science are coming together more than ever as leaders seek to create experiences that augment all sorts of experiences – museums or otherwise.
“Our ideas are waiting for tech to arrive so we can put them in place,” said Hélène Alonso, the Director of Digital Experiences at the American Museum of Natural History.