Trends at SXSW Interactive 2016

Last week our full team went to SXSW Interactive, a big yearly festival held in Austin, Texas. It was a fun experience. Innovations being discussed, lots of interesting people in our industry and sunny weather ☀️

There are many trends happening at the moment. It was great to gain more clarity about these technologies and how they will impact us humans going forward.

We would like to discuss some of the trends in this article:

  • Conversational UIs
  • The Physical Web
  • Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality
  • Machine Learning and Cloud Computing
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Let’s dive into it.

Conversational UIs

Today there is an app for most products and services we use. We love our apps, but as more companies become technology driven and objects around us smarter; Downloading an app to interact with all these things might not always be the best solution.

One idea is to use chat bots and personal assistants to make it possible to communicate to services using our normal way of interacting.

Make a connection, with a bot.

An example of this is the ability to order an Uber through Facebook Messenger. You can click on an address that shows up in a chat and ask for a ride. An Uber will show up and take you there. All without leaving the chat thread or opening another app.

Messaging apps have eclipsed social networks in usage.

An interesting example of a bot is Lark, a personal coaching service that helps people reach fitness goals. The interaction is fully as a chat, giving personalised advice based on peoples Facebook profile, Apple Healthkit, and by asking deeper questions.

Lark will lead the conversation by suggesting answers so it’s limited at the moment, but people are already saying it feels like talking to a real person and sometimes refer to it as “she” (Remember the movie Her?). Some people even prefer sharing personalised information with a bot, instead of talking to a human.

25% of people said “I love you” to a bot

We are going to see more of bots in messaging apps such as Slack, Facebook Messenger, SMS, WeChat (Popular in China) and potentially Twitter. They will allow us to interact with services and do things such as transfer money and buy things online, right from the conversation.

Even more natural

Voice assistances such as Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Now are also constantly getting better.

Expect the lines between physical and digital to blur

It’s the ability to interact with technology beyond the screen that is so exciting at the moment, using innovations such as sensors to detect changes in our environment.

Here is a fun video by Jared Ficklin demonstrating this, using technologies to control the environment around him.

The software is custom-built, using Microsoft Speech Recognition Engine, Computer Vision, and the Kinect SDK.

The software is custom-built, using Microsoft Speech Recognition Engine, Computer Vision, and the Kinect SDK.

The Physical Web

Another effort to bridge the gap between our physical and digital world is the Physical Web initiative by Google. The idea is that any service or object can broadcast their functions using low-energy bluetooth beacons.

People that are close by are able to see these services on their phone, and can click for further details. A web page will show up in the browser, allowing for information and ways to interact with the services.

The Physical Web is already available on in Chrome on iOS and Android. It has the potential to allow us to build contextual experiences that people can easily access, without downloading a new app.

Virtual Reality

This year Virtual Reality (VR) was the talk of the town at SXSW. Long lines formed in front of Samsung and Google where these were being tested out.

The current use of VR seems to be primarily for gaming and visual experiences. It also works great in combination with 360° video as it allows users to naturally look around as they are at the spot.

Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR will soon be shipped. These options are going to be quite expensive at the start, Oculus Rift has an $599 price tag, including accessories. Bets are on that hard-core gamers will be ready to pay in the early days of VR.

CCP is the first company to ship a fully featured game on the Oculus Rift, it’s called Valkyrie and it takes place in space.

Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard are a less pricy option, they use mobile phones to drive the experience. These devices do not have the hardware to provide a premium experience and lack accessories such as built-in headphones.

The promise

The promise of VR is having the ability to enter another world from your living room. To be entertained and learn new things.

There is also potential for it being used as an utility. Google Tilt Brush in combination with HTC Vibe is an interesting example. It allows you to draw in 3D from different angles. I missed the opportunity to try it out at SXSW, but heard from a friend that it was pretty amazing. Users can do things such as bend down to paint from below.

An obvious limitation to VR is to strip a computer on your head and having to close yourself from the real world. Let’s be honest, it’s a bit scary. Hopefully VR will become more social going forward, and thats of course why Facebook is investing heavy in this area.

Image from the future. Mark Zuckerberg walking out of stage from the Mobile World Conference. Everybody is watching from the VR world, no one sees the millioner icon in reality.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR) is also on the horizon. AR mixes the virtual with reality. You can see reality with digital structures and information will be mixed in for additional functions.

A good current example is Microsoft Hololens, they are about to ship a developer version of the device. It will be interesting to read the reviews about how far it has gotten.

Hololens Concept Video

More players will without a doubt enter this market. AG has huge potential, specially as an utility, for both day-to-day live and at work.

The problem is that these devices will be big as a start and clumsy to carry around. It’s going to improve, just imagine when it becomes possible to fit AG into a small lens further in the future.

Apple are also likely to join the VR/AR category and have already made few hints about it. When Apple puts their marketing engines ON, product categories often go mainstream.

Machine Learning and Cloud Computing

Machine Learning gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. It has the potential to improve our user experiences and make intelligent decisions on our behalf.

We might not realise it, Machine Learning is being used all around us. By Google for search results, speech recognition and language translation. By Spotify to automatically generate a weekly playlist based on our taste. By AirBnb to suggest a rental price that fits our location and multiple other factors.

Machine that has better odds of winning Rock, Paper, Scissors then people by using Machine Learning. Picture taken in IBM Watson studio at SXSW.

Machine Learning requires big amount of data and specialised math skills to be effective. These resources are mainly available to bigger companies. However, tech giants have started making machine learning available for the rest of us, with the use of cloud computing. Examples are Google Cloud, IBM Watson, Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Cloud Computing will take Machine Learning mainstream

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

The robots are here. They might not look like the one in the movies. They usually perform limited number of tasks and look a bit less cooler.

Robot at SXSW, designed to give high fives.

We went to an interesting talk at SXSW by Jerry Kaplan about Robots, AI and jobs. Jerry has done research the field for the better part of his life. He sees robots and artificial intelligence as part of an on-going evolution thats been happening for many years; Automation.

Progress in AI is progress in automation.

In 1790, 96% of US jobs where in farming, because of automation this number is down to 1.9% today. Less people will be needed in todays world for certain jobs. Tasks are being automated by robots and artificial intelligence. At the same time, new fields with new types of jobs are created. A good example are social marketing roles that did not exist few years back.

Technology innovation, human touch and special talents will remain in-demand. It is a challenge for all of us, to educate people for jobs that are needed in the future.

Originally published at on March 24, 2016.

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