SXSW 2016: The Future Looks Very Familiar

Leo Burnett Sydney’s Michael Dawson spots six trends that recall decades gone by

Austin is home to a magnificently rustic statue of Willie Nelson. You won’t have trouble finding it — it’s on the corner of Lavaca Street and Willie Nelson Boulevard. So who better to sum up this year’s edition of the SXSW Interactive festival than the Red Headed Stranger:

We’ll try save a part of yesterday / I know it won’t be easy but at least we have begun / There is no easy way but there is a way — “There Is No Easy Way (But There Is a Way).”

This year tech leaders are not just saving but revisiting ideas from yesterday — and succeeding handsomely. Everything old is new again.

Remember “Virtual Reality”? It was a thing in the ’90s. You put on this giant space helmet and it allowed you to enter a world of brightly colored polygons — it was a bit like being Max Headroom. It rightly fizzled, but now it’s back with a vengeance. There were no less than 40 different VR seminars over the course of SXSW 2016. Speakers discussed the impact it will have on news, storytelling, gaming, sound design, music videos, tourism, sport and. of course, porn. I tried it (the gear, not the porn) and it is light years ahead of what we once called Virtual Reality.

Remember Artificial Intelligence? It was a concept in a lot of 1980s sci-fi. Filmmakers tended to portray it in the form of a sinister robot overlord. The reality? It was just really really good at chess. After a dormant period, investigation of AI has surged in recent years. The advent of “deep learning” has renewed hopes (and fears) that we will create a machine capable of learning new things (instead of just becoming brilliant at one thing). Everybody who spoke on the topic agreed that the day is approaching. They only disagree as to when — and whether we should be concerned about it.

Remember the motor vehicle? The 130-year-old oil-spluttering packhorse of the industrial revolution is getting its biggest innovation since its invention. The Google Self-Driving Car project has racked up almost 1.5 million miles. That’s 60 times around the circumference of the Earth. And this truly auto automobile has had just one accident — on Valentine’s Day this year. Google’s Chris Urmson explained what happened — I won’t bore you with it — but rest assured it was a very minor incident. The rest of us would have had countless bingles doing that sort of mileage.

Self-driving tech is not just a facelift for the transportation. Its effects will flow to every aspect of our lives, and cities will change before our eyes. “Parking stations can become parks,” declared former Google engineer Seval Oz. There will be significant reductions in congestion and travel time. Best of all, fatalities on our roads could become an anomaly, rather than a steady toll. Your daily commute could become a time to get work done, or perhaps a time when content producers and advertisers do their work on you. You might buy a weekender eight hours from where you live — you can leave on Friday night and just sleep the whole way.

As with AI, the debate is around when this will happen, not if. One pundit put it this way: “If you’re old enough to drive today, there’s a good chance your children will never learn to drive.”

Remember the podcast? “This American Life” broadcaster Ira Glass talked about the advertiser dollars that are flooding the podcasting industry. He described incredulously the scenario of his investigative journo friends who are being laid off by major newspapers, while he is expanding his long-term investigative journalism capability. On his radio show.

Remember the GIF? (Of course you do.) One of the most interesting talks of the week was about the unique emotive properties of the GIF. Alex Chung of GIPHY made an impassioned and inspiring case for the grainy, silent, looping 30-year-old file format. He also launched the world’s first GIF studio, a company that employs 500 graphic artists to create “high production-value GIFs.”

But perhaps the most ambitious revision was saved for last. Andy Puddicombe, founder of, gave the closing keynote. His goal? No less than reviving the 3,000-year-old practice of meditation, but with a tech twist. Puddicombe himself is a former monk, and has attempted to package up his Himalayan learning into an array of short, guided meditations, accessible through the slickly designed Headspace app. In an age where we are less “present” than ever, Puddicombe is treating the problem at what many consider to be its source — the smartphone.

The climax of his speech rendered us literally speechless. Puddicombe led a packed house at the Austin Convention Centre in a 10-minute meditation. Thousands of us sat in complete silence, just focusing on our breath. It was a new experience, and a very, very old one. Even more ancient than old Willie.

Michael Dawson is creative group head at Leo Burnett Sydney. A version of this article first was published in The Huffington Post Australia.

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