Thursday, March 19, 2015

SXSW-Interactive: The Big Takeaways

Live video streaming, alternate human-ness, a robot zoo and people dressed as giant squirrels pitching a new social app … yup, must be that annual nerd fest known as SXSW-Interactive in Austin, Texas. My highlights:

Video streaming: So Meerkat was the talk on the streets both because it was new and seemingly everywhere you went someone with an iPhone (it is iOS only at this stage) was live-streaming a speaker or a party. It was also a popular topic after it was announced Twitter had purchased Periscope – a rival still in beta - and would be limiting how much access Meerkat users would have to such things as Twitter followers.

Wearable tech: It was unusual to see someone not wearing a fitness tracker, but SXSWi went far beyond that with 3D-printed fashion, "smart" textiles and discussions of the impacts of the "quantified self." It seems certain that wearable tech will be a major trend in 2015. For example, unveiled at the conference was the world's first "smart band-aid," aimed at helping in the fight against Ebola. Speaking of fitness trackers I should make special mention of the Misfit Shine – a next-generation fitness tracker that looks like jewelry and tracks a wider range of biometrics than its predecessors including how many flights of stairs you walk, the difference between deep and light sleep and the caloric values of foods you are eating. (I should also be transparent and say that courtesy of a Rochester Institute of Technology grad I was given a Shine at SXSW).

The 'Short Circuit' lookalike was part
of the Robot Petting Zoo
Robots: The Robot Petting Zoo was a personal favorite featuring tech from drones that could repair bridges to robots who would allow teachers to teach a class from across the world to small autonomous robots capable of helping in a natural disaster. The range of ground and aerial robots was impressive. The "zoo" even featured a modular robotic cabin that can be stacked up like coffee cups to provide emergency housing after a disaster. On a sidenote: There was even human-based anti-robot protest that briefly caught the media’s attention.

Social Media Crisis Simulation: A personal favorite was the Polpeo/eModeration workshop called Rehearsing A Crisis Breaking on Social Media. Using Polpeo’s software and dividing the room up into teams the room was a hive of frenzied activity for 2½ hours. The scenario: A tech executive is out of control at SXSW and has been seen drunk and with what looks like white powder on his nose… hmm, wonder what inspired this scenario! In any case: a fun exercise and great learning experience.

Memorable presentations:

Martine Rothblatt and Bina 48
Dr. Martine Rothblatt: The founder of Sirius XM radio, the CEO of United Therapeutics and author of Virtually Human: The Promise – and Peril – of Digital Immortality sat down with Lisa Miller of New York magazine to discuss transhumanism, cyber consciousness, pharmaceutical development and robotics. In what was a truly mind-blowing discussion the transgender activist covered the idea of cyber clones or an alternate consciousness we may all have one day. This cyber clone would be able to go places we could not and would represent us or live on once our physical bodies die. She also discussed robot replacements for loved ones and has famously made a robot version of her wife Bina (a robot called Bina 48). One of her key takeaways: "I think everyone can question authority. I think the worst thing we can do is bow down to authority. I [also] think everyone can be curious and ask questions."

Daniel Pink: The author of Drive and To Sell is Human offered seven key tips for changing people’s behavior that seemed equally applicable to marketers and parents. Among those tips two stood out: "Use a Question to Change Behavior" because people come up with their own reasons to agree with you and "Make Time to Rhyme" because rhymes increase information processing fluency.

Eric Schmidt, Megan Smith, Walter Isaacson: Google chairman Schmidt and United States Chief Technology Officer Smith made up a panel moderated by Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs and The Innovators. In what was an interesting discussion about how innovation can and can’t be the future of the human race the most interesting moment came when an audience member pointed out that the two men on stage kept cutting off the one woman on the stage.… Smith responded to the comment by speaking about the challenges she’s faced as a woman in business and government. Yes, SXSW was also about women in tech, but it seems that even in 2015 some men can’t give them their due.

Interesting apps - beyond the ones already mentioned:

Peepsqueeze is an app for iOS (Apple) or Android that combines multiple video greetings from family and friends and turns them into one seamless, downloadable video keepsake to send to someone for a special occasion – birthdays, weddings … you get the idea. Users don’t need any editing experience just start a squeeze and let others add to it.

Hater is an iOS-only app that does what Facebook users have been asking for for a very long time: Allows users to give a big thumbs down to something they really, really don’t like. Who needs a big old Like button when you can lay some angst on something that bothers the you-know-what out of you?

xocial (Say it: soh-shuhl), offers a way for people to say thanks to anyone and by doing so publicly encouraging the good in all of us. The app offers a “hugs and kisses” score (Get it? X and O and is kisses and hugs?) and the more thanks you give and receive the higher your score.

And one that has not launched yet, but looks interesting: Squirl bills itself as "a brand new way to discover your next read." But it’s a lot more than that. This Foursquare-type app guides users to locations featured in books and alerts users when they are walking through a place featured in a book. It then connects you to that book for a short read or a chance to buy it.


One thing that was noticeable is that SXSW is no longer just for the humans. 

Internet star Grumpy Cat at SXSW
Grumpy Cat was in
da Bacon Haus
Internet-famous Grumpy Cat was causing huge lines outside the pop-up store called Bacon-Haus (a thinly disguised marketing attempt to promote a new bacon-infused line of Friskies cat food).

Mophie, the phone case and device-charger company, deployed a pack of St. Bernards. When someone tweeted Mophie that their device’s battery was nearly dead a St. Bernard would be dispatched with a charger in the small barrel attached to its neck. OK, as far as I know no lives were saved, but it was fun nonetheless.

Numerous celebs were seen toting various breeds of teacup-sized pooches in handbags. Nothing new about that, but at least to my mind the number of cafes catering to said pooches was interesting. From water bowls to snacks….

The Squirl squirrels at SXSW Interactive
The Squirl squirrels
And then there were the giant squirrels … OK, OK people in squirrel suits promoting the not-yet-launched Squirl app mentioned above. They were seemingly everywhere…

On that nutty note my work is done. Thanks SXSWi!

A special thanks to the RIT MAGIC Center and its MAGIC Spell Studios for getting me there and back.


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