Thoughts on SXSW 2017 - Are We Grown-ups Now?

Living in the Future

About 10 years ago I hooked a small computer up to my living room TV and set up connected speakers in my garage, kitchen and bedroom. It took most of the day to get it to actually work. But by that evening I could walk from room to room listening to the same music, controlling it all from a Blackberry. It felt like living in the future.

Yeah, I had to jump through some hoops to get it to work. Sure, the tech was cobbled together and prone to breaking down. And, of course, the idea of it was much cooler than the execution. But when it worked: It was awesome.

SXSW 2017 felt the same way.

This year it seems that maybe, just maybe - SXSW Interactive grew up. There were less zany street teams and giant parties. It wasn’t the launching ground for some major product or startup. There weren’t a bunch of flashy one-use mobile apps shouting “download me” from every pedicab and sticker-covered pillar.

In place of all those things we had thoughtful sessions covering everything from how tech influences our society to how to keep technology human. We had conversations about the reality of all those R’s (AR, VR, MR, etc…) and what they would actually be useful for. And we spent a lot of time talking TO and ABOUT bots. It was as ambitious and exciting as it was reflective and realistic.

Here are some highlights:

Bots were this year’s big buzzword - but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.

Especially given that the industry can only agree that the definition of a bot is “anything where conversation is the primary interface”.  With that definition in mind, we’re already living with plenty of bots today. Robo phone calls, Siri, Slack, Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa - they all have a conversational UI and they’re all pretty limited in what they do really well. But that’s ok! Conversations are learning systems and for a bot, every conversation is a chance to learn.  

Now, all of that sure is interesting for tech enthusiasts, venture capital investors, and programmers. But what does it mean for those of us who live in the now? The people who need to build things, plan things, and sell things today. It means: Organize your data.

The future of digital experiences will be modular and consumable.

Whether you plan to build your own customer service chat bot or you just want Google, Siri, and Alexa to be able to find you when a potential customer asks about you, there is one common denominator: Structured Data. The future of digital experiences will be modular and consumable. That next wave of mission critical tech will all be data driven. If you wait to get your data standards in place, you’ll end up in a costly game of catchup.

Augmented and Virtual Reality are still really cool to experience. (What a surprise…)

But, now they are starting to have some practical business applications. What I found most interesting about these examples is that all of them are totally realistic use cases and feel totally immersive when experiencing them. Yet, they look extremely unpolished compared to the beautiful renderings we got over 6 years ago from the Corning “Day of Glass” videos.

  • Immersion, a VR application maker is looking to change the interior decorating game with TrueScale, a VR interior design tool

  • Visualise worked with South African Tourism to create a VR vacation experience to give users a taste of what it’s actually like to visit South Africa

  • AR Startup YouCam partnered with e.l.f. cosmetics to create a smart mirror experience that let you try different makeup looks on the fly.

It’s taken about 5 years for AR and VR to start to make real traction but it seems that the release in the last few years of Samsung Galaxy Gear, Oculus Rift, and others, has finally put these devices in enough people’s hands to reach a critical mass in interest and opportunity.

Artificial Intelligence (Yeah, that thing again…)

First a Disclaimer: Yes, the “AI” we have today is not really artificial intelligence. Just like that two wheel thing we keep calling a hoverboard is not a damn hoverboard! But, today’s AI is still impressive! In fact the AI featured in this year’s sessions was perhaps the most exciting I saw and it had everything to do with the use cases presented.

Over the last few years SXSW has had a little bit of a problem with sessions that are sponsored by an organization turning into nothing but sales pitches for the sponsor’s product and when a friend convinced me to go a session called AI: How Tech’s Next Revolution Will Change Lives with just one speaker from Intel, I was a bit concerned. However, that one session produced five different AI-Powered projects that I just had to check out afterwards.

Clinc - A financial startup with a highly sophisticated conversational UI. Just ask a question about your finances and it answers.

Pikazo - This app lets you modify your normal photos in a classic artistic style.

Farmlogs - A farm and crop planning software suite that helps farmers improve crop efficiency. Going beyond just analyzing data to making field-specific recommendations.

Penn Medicine is using machine learning and AI to make sense of huge amounts of raw data to predict future heart issues. They are also mining Cancer data to identify the best treatment for your specific tumor, based on your genome and other successful treatments for those with a similar genome.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is working with Intel to reduce the time it takes to identify and verify leads on a missing child from 30 days down to 1 day.

All in all, this year’s SXSW felt an awful lot like a return to what used to make this springtime gathering so damn exciting: the hope of the unknown. The idea that a lot of smart people are out there pursuing some pretty crazy things just because they can. They don’t know exactly what’s going to come of it, yet, but sooner than we expect, their work will make us feel like we’re living in the future.