I’m aiming to be the last person to write about this year’s Interactive Festival in Austin. No really. I was definitely one of the last to leave, having an extended stay thanks to the new VR track which was bolted onto the Interactive Festival.
A lot of people have written about 5–7 breaking trends they saw or talks they enjoyed. And the delicious thing is — no two people can experience the festival in the same way, it’s actually impossible.
Before the Festival even started, the usual sour grapes articles came out : all with the same groan — that nothing innovative is ever launched there, the speakers are lacklustre. This article, post festival http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/mar/20/sxsw-2016-festival-austin-performers used “mess” to describe it. I’d argue it’s a pretty hot mess.
I’m in a very lucky position in that my employer pays for my trip. In the past we’ve brought students to the festival to experience a slice of the tech world which is unique to Austin, Texas. There is nowhere else in the world that puts on a show like it. In the past they have seen the Makerbot Replicator launched, hung out with real life memes, networked in lines like the rest of us and made huge decisions on what they’d do with the rest of their lives based on the brands they were exposed to and the companies we visited.
I went this year with a very open mind, but also with a vested interest in VR, having had a hand in producing the UK’s first VR Festival a month earlier.
Gadget-wise everyone seemed to be falling for the Ricoh 360 degree camera, but no-one was Periscoping or Meerkatting anymore. I fell in love with a product from Korea that looked like a doughnut called HelloWay. Touching it on your cheek, it analysed the hydration of your skin and read the age of it.
Luckily, it thought I was ten years younger so the Austin lifestyle was clearly doing me good.
I deliberately sought out the wider corners of the event, shunning both opening and closing parties and exploring the fringes.
Aside from POTUS (who was awesome), I opted for an eclectic mix of panels and subjects, sitting through several Diversity, Encryption and Blockchain debates; as well as a fascinating interview with the CEO of Underarmour Kevin Plank which included a preview of their ad starring Michael Phelps which took my breath away.
Another goosebump moment was watching J.J.Abrams preview his HBO remake of the 1973 movie starring Yul Brynner :“Westworld”, which looks incredible.
JJ discussed the use of technology in filmmaking with his friend and collaborator Andrew Jarecki, citing the dangers of tech for tech’s sake and using SFX for the sake of it without a central narrative. Jarecki also casually launched his new app “KnowMe” with a live demo on his iPhone, which worked thankfully.
One of my favourite speakers of the festival was Alex Chung, founder of Giphy. He had a 9.30am slot and visibly struggled with his jet lag, chugging coffee throughout — yet still delivered the most engaging morning session. However the man next to me didn’t seem to realise Alex was showing GIF’s in every slide and chose to look at his own iPad instead. Most amazing was Alex launching Giphy Studios — an agency for brands and companies wanting their own unique content creation by artists and illustrators. GIF’s are already big, but this will make them huge. As Alex said — why do you think Facebook and Twitter have enabled GIF embedding in their platforms? 65 million unique visitors to his site can’t be wrong. (Okay, yes I am one of them. Daily.)
One of my favourite panels was the Oculus Story Studio where the four panel members quietly gave away their secrets on creating compelling VR. Like many others they compared the medium with traditional cinema, citing the differences; and also the opportunities which creating for a new form provides. In the cinema “the ritual is established” whereas with VR, donning a headset and feeling comfortable is still alien to most people — it is rewriting the rules and confines of storytelling and how we experience it it key. They showed a great VT at the end of their co-collaborators talking about how exciting the medium is.
I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear Godfather of VR Chris Milk speak again. He held court in a hushed room of around 80 people who hung on his every word; proclaiming that this was year two of discovering what storytelling is inside this technology — currently expensive and complex. The language of storytelling is yet to be defined — “the format is fluid unlike film which was fixed”. He admitted Verse are not going to crack it themselves and the VR community has thousands of artists working on new content — “There isn’t a box anymore, you aren’t even working outside of it — you’re in it”. His observation of “technology has pushed our screens to be smaller — but the portal into the screen is infinite” seemed utterly bonkers but true.
I was lucky enough to sit in on panel discussions with creators and stars of both HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and USA Network’s “Mr Robot” — both sessions queried how both shows make the use of technology and the culture surrounding it authentic. And the answer basically was — the tech industry is pretty crazy and they reflect that by interweaving plots with true stories and consultants making the code real. Plus I got to be in the same room as Christian Slater, which fulfilled a teenage dream.
You cannot fail to be wowed by the TV activations at SXSW. I attended an “End of the World” party in a makeshift fairground, receiving an FSociety mask on entry and a bespoke screen printed t-shirt. http://www.usanetwork.com/mrrobot/blog/mr-robot-blog/mr-robot-named-one-of-sxsws-best-experiences
I didn’t make it the now-yearly Game of Thrones exhibit due to the year I spent queuing for HOURS to get in Back to VR and I spent so much time with headsets on I began to feel a little strange. Amongst the pieces I experienced were Groove Jones’ work for McDonalds on a Vive which had me inside a HappyMeal box painting the sides; Cream Production’s Hitchcock homage which had me right in the shower scene in Psycho; Verse’s JR Film where I was in a helicopter over NYC photographing his Flatiron artwork and finally plunging to the bottom of the oceans for a whale’s eye view of how the oceans are being destroyed for Dell. I even took one for the team and experienced “Orange Sunshine” — meant to simulate an acid trip for the film of the same name. Groovy man.
Another first I hadn’t seen before was an art installation “Silent Room”amidst the chaos. London based artist Simon Heijdens had designed an experience designed for one person to walk through. Sadly, when I visited the door had broken and they were unable to let people in.
I still find the Festival passes annoyingly constricting if you are generally interested in Film, Music and Tech and want to feast on all three smorgasbords at the same time but the Festival organisers are doing their best to blend the disciplines which can only be a good thing.
As the Interactive Festival died down the Trade Show and Flatstock set up. I had never realised how beautiful the poster art was and of course some had to come home with me
Unusually I fell for a brand that I usually can’t stand. McDonalds had a huge presence again at SXSW with a loft offering VR experiences and a customised burger. I KNOW.
However some brands were doing it wrong, of course. I entered the IBM Cognotive studio having been asked questions on my likes and dislikes and being promised a personalised experience. When I asked a guy for the wifi code he disappeared through a door and never came back. There was a queue to control BB8 with your mind and I’m afraid I got bored.
Similarly the FastCompany Grill refused to let me eat (free) lunch there as I couldn’t join the waitlist without a US mobile.
I can’t grumble though. I got invited to a pool party, saw some bands on a boat on the river, saw Willie Nelson perform at Spotify House got my picture with a StormTrooper and met Chris Milk.
It was a good year.