SXSW2015:Austin Reloaded

Claire Selby

Claire Selby SXSW Pass

Claire Selby, Commercial Relationships Manager, attended this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) event in Austin, Texas. Here she gives the lowdown on one of the most exciting events for lovers of all things tech.

SXSW is one of those things that's hard to explain to the non-attendee. Imagine all of the tech, all of the geeks who love tech, all in the same place. Everyone tailors their own experience from the thousands of sessions on offer - leaving everyone with their own unique impression.

2015 was my third time at SXSW, not quite a veteran, but not green enough to fall foul of transport or traffic issues (which is another story).

Unlike previous years there was no overarching theme. When I collected my badge and obligatory tote bag, my heart sank a little when I saw "wearables" emblazoned on it. But it was definitely the year they broke through and became the norm.

Last year the show was full of drones, 3D printed food and Game of Thrones, many people were wearing Google Glasses. This year, rather than being about the technology it seemed to me it was more about people, with a huge "social good" strand running. There were also more female keynotes, panels and attendance which is great to see and be part of.

The list of the panels and parties I went to is fascinating in itself.

  • Neuroplasticity and Tech - Why Brands have to change
  • How to rock SXSW in 4 hours
  • F1 data analysis shifts gears to healthcare
  • UKTI British Meet Up
  • Interactive Opening Party
  • The Fashion Hack: experimentation and Co Creation
  • Biz Stone interviewed
  • Google Firestarters: Engineering Strategy
  • Film & Interactive Fusion Party
  • AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves
  • How digital can shape the future of print books
  • MashBash
  • Shakespeare and the Future of Storytelling
  • 20 Years since Toy Story - Infinity and Beyond
  • 3D Printing in the movies
  • Live music streaming as a means for brand engagement
  • Henry Rollins Interviewed
  • Interactive Closing Party
  • She Rules: a female leadership panel

There were a few strands running through the content - one was how technology is affecting us in a bad way and how we seek dopamine hits from logging into our Facebook or Instagram and see how many likes we have - which is actually affecting our brains and rewiring them. Dan Machen and Felix Morgan from Hey Human really killed it with that first session I attended. They talked about how we kid ourselves into thinking we are multitasking - but most of the technology we use actually ends up distracting us from getting things done. Scary stuff.

SXSW Conference ImageEven scarier is the fact the broadcasters seem to have the biggest budgets. "Penny Dreadful" was emblazoned on the shuttle buses and throughout the SXSW app, Game of Thrones had a huge presence, as did Bates Motel - this year they'd rented out a full lot and you could actually stay in one of the rooms. National Geographic also had an "escape the cold" tent to promote their new show. The Mashable party this year was actually the launch of the second series of "Silicon Valley" and the Mashable House hosted a preview of "Younger" a new show from the creators of "Sex in the City"

Elsewhere brands were doing some pretty interesting things to assist the conference-goer - if you tweeted @mophie they would send you a Saint Bernard dog to help charge your battery. Some brands fell flat - every time I passed the Miller Lite stand it was empty, clearly not quite hitting the mark. McDonalds had a huge presence this year, although according to locals it hadn't been popular. They'd expected bands to showcase for free, then realised the mistake and agreed to pay them.

Phillips had stands within the Austin Convention Centre and outside on the street, giving away smoothies and healthy snacks using their appliances, also allowing you to charge devices for free.

Ipsos had a well-thought out women's lounge, offering stressed ladies manicures and hairdos along with a networking space - Cosmopolitan offered the same with a makeover by Cover Girl. It may sound superficial but dashing around Austin to fit as many sessions in as possible takes its toll!

As usual Paypal delivered a great experience by having their social media lounge with free coffee, food, and space to recharge and relax. Simple idea, well executed. Likewise Spotify House, which had two stages, chillout areas, live art/music installations and quizzes with prizes. Oh, and free icecream.

SXSW Street ImageEveryone was talking about and using Meerkat - the app that enables you to live stream from your mobile. Whilst in the (very long) wait for the Mashable party, Pete Cashmore himself came out and "Meerkatted" the people in the queue.

Queues - or as the yanks say "lines" are possibly the best way to meet people at SX. We ended up making friends with people, downloading apps, sharing restaurant advice, swapping business cards - and sometimes entertaining each other in what are always long waits for the most popular talks.

Speaking of popular talks, my Ravensbourne colleague Dr James Morris  (See below image) made his SXSW Austin debut speaking about our live-broadcasting project with the RSC, with a full room of huge Shakespeare and tech fans. James will no doubt blog about his experiences as well but it was interesting to hear from the RSC's side about how they view digital. Sarah Ellis, their Head of Digital Development made a wonderful comparison to the audiences in Shakespeare's day being told to wear mirrors or reflective glass around their necks to enhance the performance to the 'wearables' of today.

Another organisation looking at how to stay relevant in the digital age was Penguin. I took part in their "How Digital can shape the future of print books" Hackathon on the Sunday which was a joy, as after 4 years of organising them it is the first one I've actually attended.

SXSW James Morris ImageA panel which resonated with me was the "She Rules: Women in Leadership". We hung on every word of U.S. Colonel Jennifer E Carter's story of having dinner in Iraq, when she asked to meet the cooks - she found a complete culture clash as 7-10 women ranging between of 16 to 65 years old stared back at her in her fatigues. Also, there was tech founder Kathryn Minshew, who because she was mistaken for someone's girlfriend at her first SXSW led her to develop a killer 10 second pitch. And, how wearing leather to a pitch always gets her investment!

By far the most mind-bending session came from Martin Rothblatt, the CEO of United Therapeutics Corporation. She spoke about AI, Immortality and the Future of Selves - and blew our minds. Not only does she believe the extraction of selves is very near, but also technology will "out-Siri Siri" until we have cyber consciousness. She believes we will all have our own "mind clone" in the very near future - which could lead to a new career choice for many - the "cyber psychiatrist".

Overlaps between the music and film portions of the festival are far more frequent now and we were able to benefit by seeing TV on the Radio and Ludacris at the closing party, seeing The Vaccines and Gorgon City at Spotify House.

As Austin is so small, and most people are in town for the same thing, it was lovely to bump into people we knew. None more so than previous incubation company Julian McCrae of Portal Entertainment. He's going from strength to strength and moving to LA later this year. A real success story for Ravensbourne.

I've got a fistful of business cards from across the globe, new friends and potential business contacts, and SXSW is over for another year. I can't wait for the next one.