Invisible interfaces and big honking headsets: SxSW 2016 wrap-up

If this year’s annual South by Southwest conference is any indication, we will develop even closer relationships with our devices. They’ll both adapt to help us to conduct our work, and allow us to be more immersed and engaged with experiences to which we wouldn’t otherwise be exposed.

Improvements in voice recognition, natural language processing and artificial intelligence are dramatically improving our ability to work with computers in a more ‘natural’ way; rather than typing on a screen to open an app and perform an action, we will be able to make natural requests that can be interpreted and acted upon. These intelligent agents will have an awareness of context to provide better responses, and then apply machine learning based on feedback to better predict your future needs and expectations, to better serve you over time. Menial or draining tasks can be automated. This will reduce our cognitive load so we can focus on more impactful, creative or enjoyable activities.

As we become more effective in our work activities, our time will shift to allow for more rich, creative experiences. Virtual reality will allow us to become more fully immersed in a world outside our immediate environment. Much more than just an evolution of the existing film medium, virtual, augmented and mixed reality experiences shift how actively we engage with information that’s being presented to us. Spherical experiences (from a 360degree camera, for example) give us the opportunity to focus on what is happening all around us, and volumetric experiences allow us to even more actively move about and interact with the space around us. By engaging more than just the the 2D space in front of us, virtual reality has the capacity to hijack our senses in a profound way, which opens up the potential to actually change individuals perceptions and experiences.

SxSW is itself an overwhelming, life-changing experience. Over the course of a week, I attended sessions ranging from “Will AI Augment or Destroy Humanity?” and “Autonomous Cars Will Make Us Better Humans” to “Crowdsourcing the Hyperloop” to “New Advertising Models for Virtual Reality” and “Augmented Reality Without the Rose-Colored Glasses.” With an impressive line of speakers from SRI, Google X and Stanford University, there was plenty of excitement and expertise to tap into.

But as anyone who has attended will tell you, there is much to be learned outside of the thousands of scheduled presentations. IBM had an impressive showing outside the formal program, with their IBM Design Hive and IBM Cognitive Studio experiences. Chef Watson was the guest of honor, serving up cocktails and beer predictions via #cognitivecooking



With a few simple questions…


…IBM Watson was 100% confident I’d like this oatmeal stout. He was right!

The IBM sponsored spaces were playgrounds for human creativity, which then were fed back into IBM Watson to learn from. The space also offered a virtual reality cycling experience (I was sitting next to Dave Haase as he was doing an interview on how he applied analytics to improve his cycling time!)

Oh and the virtual reality! 

2016 saw the introduction of a new track to the conference, VR/AR. This was an additional three days during which the fourth floor of the Hilton became a showcase for filmmakers and vendors to show off their work. This was in addition to a dozen or more Augmented reality or virtual reality events and talks doing on during the regular programming. Just a few of the experiences:


  • Samsung had a 4D roller coaster experience they produced in conjunction with Six Flags (Oculus)
  • The New York Times rented out the Easy Tiger for an entire day to promote their VR work. They gave away NYT-Branded Google Cardboard to everyone who attended.
  • Gillette got in on the game at the Trade show with some Samsung Gear VR experiences. I got the chance to teeter on a slackline in Moab, Utah, all in the name of seeing “how your body reacts under pressure.
  • was showing off a variety of the pieces they’d worked on (often in partnership with the New York Times). The Displaced was particularly impactful.
  • I explored the International Space Station and drove a lunar rover! NASA had developed an experience with HTC-Vive that also included a handheld controller so I could teleport myself through the station, and grab and throw objects around me.
  • Lastly, I went through the immersive #acrosstheline experience put together by Emblematic Studio for Planned Parenthood. Although I had heard Nonny de la Peña discuss the piece in a session, I wasn’t prepared for the strong internal feelings the piece stirred up as I was exposed to actual audio recordings of protesters yelling at “me”.


Will Virtual Reality make it onto the product roadmap at ReadyTalk this year? Probably not. But SxSW is about exposure to what’s up-and-coming, so we can start to understand what these evolving consumer expectations and experiences mean for us and where there are opportunities that make sense.

All in all, it was another inspiring year at SxSW. I’ll continue to share my thoughts and recommendations on what it all means over the coming weeks and months.

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