Rotisserie, Robots, and Reality: Bringing SXSW Back to Vancouver

If you’re heading down to Austin during SXSW, it might be a good time to uninstall all your calorie counter apps. Free beer pours from every tap and the faire is filled with endless combinations of fat and sugar. If I lived in that city I would do nothing but eat. Likely invest in my own smoker and rotisserie.

As I go through my notes and photos from the week, food emerges as a clear theme. Specifically, Texas BBQ and tacos. I ate a lot. Maybe too much. I could probably fast for the next month or so and still be full. But I won’t.

In between sessions of smoked meat and flour tortillas, SXSW was a buffet for your brain. This is not a questionable Vegas hotel buffet either. I’m talking Four Seasons style, beach-side buffet with constantly re-filled lobster, caviar, and prime rib with flowing champagne to wash it down. It’s rich and filling, leaving you with plenty to digest when you’re done.

I watched a woman control the Star Wars’s BB-8 drone with her mind. Her mind. Emotiv partnered with IBM to pull technology right out of Elyisum. Emotiv takes snapshots of the user’s brain as they complete training exercises that help it learn the user’s thoughts. Pretty soon it knows when they’re thinking “I want to turn right.” I watched the droid roll along the floor and actually take a right. Then I picked my jaw up off the floor.

There were too many of these moments to mention, but after the most mind-blowing, sensory-overloading, and sleep depriving week of my life I had a few takeaways in mind. Aside from the food.

1 — Big data belongs in the doctor’s office

Under Armour’s Kevin Plank takes the stage

I heard from tech nerds, big data enthusiasts, and artificial intelligence professionals, but it was a football player that really got me thinking about the power of big data.

Kevin Plank started Under Armour (UA) with one goal in mind: to make the world’s best shirt for playing american football. Sixteen years later, UA is closing the gap between itself and some of the biggest performance companies in the world.

His prevalent leadership skills and dedication to “building the best products” continues to push UA into new areas. Recently, they’ve entered the world of connected fitness.

What really struck me was the passion in his rant about the failures of personal health data. We arrive at a doctor’s office every year or so for a check up — if we’re doing what we’re told — and compare our current vitals to what they looked like one year ago. Imagine if this was how companies had to gather data on their consumers? It would be nearly useless.

UA has made some strategic partnerships — including IBM’s Watson — to develop a collection of apps called UA Record. These apps work with UA’s Health Box, a collection of devices including a wristband (UA Band), body band (UA Heart Rate) and scale (UA Scale) to track your health on a daily basis. Between your own data, and the data of millions of others, they have the ability to be on the lookout for trends. Harnessing this data could prove to be invaluable as we move further into the connected health space. Especially with Kevin’s passion and dedication driving it.

2 — Getting dissed by a robot

This photo was taken minutes before the robot ghosted on Sam

Have you ever talked to a robot? I mean, ​really talked to a robot? I tried to at SXSW. They’re too good for me. But you know what? Getting ignored by robots was my favourite part of the conference.

The amount of innovation here is staggering. Remember the Japanese guy who made a robot that looks almost exactly like him? His name is Hiroshi Ishiguro and he talks to robots. Through his research, he’s learned about how humans interact, understand things, and respond to each other. He is transferring his learnings to robots, in hopes that one day they are able to fully assimilate into human societies. And according to him, all that stands in the way is a better understanding of humans.

One of his most impressive inventions is a little 1’ tall robot he calls Sota, which is an abbreviation of social talker. They hang out in groups and chat. Like, they genuinely have conversations with one another. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to see.

These robots are totally happy chatting amongst themselves and aren’t always that concerned with the people around them. I asked them a question, and they answered, but they quickly became caught up in what the other robots’ answers were and I became a bewildered bystander who the robots happily ignored.

Hiroshi’s rationale is that interactions with a robot can die pretty quickly. You ask a question, it gives you an answer, and then the talk dies faster than when you see your neighbour in the elevator. What sets his robots apart is the way they discuss your answer with their fellow bots. They try to come up with an appropriate response and include you in the conversation along the way. He notes that this capability could go a long way in assisting elderly people that are after companionship..

Allowing robots to openly speak to each other is for me the first time that I’ve ever imagined a real human-like robot society. A concept that is difficult to imagine, until you see it up close and personal. As fun and fascinating as it is to see, it’s actually kind of unnerving. Hiroshi mentioned that although his androids are human-like, there is still a lot of work to do until their brains replicate that of a human’s.

3 — Virtual reality is really, really real

Countless brands are betting on VR experiences

Those of us involved in, or even adjacent to, the tech industry have likely strapped on a Gear VR or Oculus Rift at this point, but VR has quickly become something that’s attainable and ready for the masses..

VR was everywhere at SXSW. From painting the inside of a Happy Meal box at the McDonald’s loft to riding a mountain bike at IBM’s Cognitive Studio, there were endless uniquely experiences to indulge in. On the whole, VR still has the sheen of novelty — especially since strapping a clunky Gear VR onto your head isn’t exactly a seamless experience — but it is now necessary for brands to join in.

At the trade show, I “dropped in” to the DiscoveryVR booth for the multi-sensory experience of bungee jumping into the Grand Canyon. I was sweating. Seriously. My heart was racing when I jumped off the edge of the digital canyon.

The entire time I was simply sitting down. My seat was synchronized to video, my ears shielded by Beats headphones, a pulse reader kept track of my vitals, and I gazed through a Gear VR. When the drop happened, canyon winds were sprayed at my face and it smelled like I was in the Grand Canyon. I will never forget this. You will not forget your first experience with VR, and now is the time for brands to own it.

Here we are: humanoid robots and robotic humans

Turns out that Daft Punk were onto something. Data-driven technology and virtual reality are evolving to the point where they can become integrated with our lives and benefit us. At the same time, robotic engineers like Ishiguro are pushing the boundaries of robotics in ways that make them more human, from their appearance to the way they comprehend the world around them. We are learning from each other, and SXSW was the center of this shared experience, hinting at the endless possibilities to come.

A week spent in Austin has me feeling excited and ready to see how these technologies evolve and how we can integrate into our work and into our lives. I’m also more than ready climb back into my bed in Vancouver. No matter how comfy the couch, a week of couch-surfing is enough. I may have missed the Obamas’ speak, CHVRCHES performance, and Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe (that one still hurts), but I’m not sure I’d do South By any different. Well, maybe one or two less tacos.

Maybe not.

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