The 7 coolest things I learnt at SxSW

One hundred and eighteen hours ago I arrived in Austin, a SXSW newbie with a roster overbooked with sessions and head full of speaker bios. Since then, I have drunk from the firehose that is SXSWi, and emerged amazed, excited, optimistic, sometimes terrified, but always inspired.

With no time for reflection, here are the 7 coolest things that I learnt, and what I think they might mean…

1. VR can make you go vegetarian
A team at Stanford University have developed a VR experience that allows you to experience the journey of a cow to the slaughter. It may not make you go completely vegetarian, but researchers found that it does change viewers’ attitudes to animal welfare. This is just one example of hundreds of VR demos and points of view on offer at the conference — from how to tell stories in VR, to how to design better interfaces, to endless discussions about the differences between VR, AR and Mixed Reality (MR). We’re not there yet, but judging by the level of attention from all angles, VR/AR and MR will become a part of our world in many, many ways.

2. A vacuum cleaner company is about to become the google maps of indoor spaces
iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner has started a quiet revolution that could pave the way for truly smart homes populated with robots. The tipping point? Last year they developed the ability to use their vacuum cleaners to map the entire indoor space of your home. As iRobot CEO Colin Angle said, “the map is the glue that makes the smart home intelligent” allowing you to locate objects and people and respond as required. In the 6 months since launch they have mapped 300 million square feet. So what’s next? Imagine the possibilities of having a map of your home available — as Angle put it, it’s like having a brain for all of the body parts that are smart devices and robots, but imagine too the security implications of having those maps stored in the cloud. It may well be that your vacuum cleaner is the advanced guard of a robot revolution inside your house…

3. In future, VR may use electric shocks to throw you off balance
Samsung unveiled their work with a start-up called Entrium 4D to develop earphones that use small electric charges to stimulate the balance sensors inside your ears. When paired with a VR driving experience it makes you feel as though you’re literally swerving around corners. It’s only in prototype and the experience is slightly disconcerting. Is it safe? Let’s just say I felt pretty seasick for a while afterwards. Nevertheless — expect loads more peripherals for VR that seek to add physical/haptic feedback to the visual experience. One example was the Samsung Rollercoaster activation, which was almost as thrilling as the real thing — all it took was amazing 360 footage, a slightly analogous physical setting and some vibration and movement in the chair.

4. The Hyperloop was actually built in New York in 1870
It’s become shorthand for the future of transport, but it turns out that the principle itself is so simple that a version of it was actually built almost 200 years ago. Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies made the point that it’s simple technology, it’s just the scale that’s the biggest challenge — imagine maintaining a vacuum across a tube that runs between LA and San Francisco. At a broader level, it’s a great example of how long it can take to monetise or mainstream technologies — shout out to Wired Founder Kevin Kelly for showing a picture of himself testing out an early version of Virtual Reality in 1987! It looked almost identical to Oculus Rift.

5. The deep web is over 500 times bigger than the web that anyone can see.
When the web first started, everything was accessible and visible to any user. Today with logins and paywalls, the vast majority of the content on the web is not visible to most users — and to most search engines. It’s a stark vision of how the internet has changed, and gives cause to think about free access to information, and perhaps about how the early days of the internet were something of a golden age for openness.

6. I can’t beat a robot at rock paper scissors, but I can be seduced by one
If VR was big, Artificial Intelligence was almost as big — and arguably more exciting, with more potential to fundamentally disrupt our world. IBM’s cognitive studio demo’ed an impressive series of applications for Watson — it’s AI on demand. By far the most humbling was Mervyn, a robot with a fearsome record in rock paper scissors. I failed to beat Mervyn. I welcome our new Robot overlords.

If Mervyn is a bully, then Pepper is pure charm. He’s a robot designed for retail, but the beauty of Pepper is how the design team have created a humanoid face and expressions using simple tilts of the head and light effects. As I babbled at Pepper, he looked attentively at me, occasionally ‘blinking’ and nodding, before responding. I felt almost rude walking away…

7. The Future will be built by good people
“I am a pathological optimist” said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, in his quietly inspiring talk on the making of Wikipedia and his many side projects. Wikipedia has grown to become the 5th most visited website on the planet through the efforts of “people of good will” said Wales. On the other side of the Convention Centre, paypal co-founder and all round giant brain Max Levchin argued that ‘beneficence’ is a growing wave that will shake up our world. He argued that many industries are currently dominated by companies who make excess profit at the expense of their customers — financial services are his target, but they are the tip of the iceberg. It’s an inspiring call to arms — to ‘fix’ broken industries by doing good.

So what do you think? If you were there, what inspired you? And if not — are you hopeful or fearful for the future?

Like what you read? Give Tom Gray a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.