SXSW Interactive, the annual tech and digital media conference in Austin, Texas, has been a fertile hunting ground (and a spring getaway) for Facers for a few years now. By day we consume ideas in five jam-packed sessions – by night, cheap margaritas and Texan steak.
Last year we struck inspiration gold with MIT Media Lab’s presentation on mobile self-ethnography – which Chief Innovation Officer Francesco D’Orazio has been developing into a research tool for “reality mining” through your mobile phone.
This year these are the stories that captured my attention:
4 big trends to watch
- 3D printers and Maker culture
- The sharing economy: AirBnB, Uber, and Sidecar
- Interfaces: haptic, gestural and visual
- Augmented reality, and the rise of ‘Glassholes’
SXSW was really physical this year. Very few sessions were on online-only topics – we’ve talked enough about Twitter and Facebook et al. Instead of Google Plus, the California behemoths presented Google Glass and Google[X], their “moonshot factory” designed to get you into space. MakerBot launched their Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner which allows you to take any physical object, scan it, and create a digital file (without any CAD skills required at all) — and then print the item again and again on a MakerBot Replicator.
[Image credit: MakerBot, via The Verge]
Physical ownership was hit another blow by the buzz around renting- and sharing-based services such as AirBnB (places to stay), Uber and Sidecar (transport). It’s the rise of service over product and renting over purchase: what matters is meeting a need as efficiently as possible, without surplus resources (hotel rooms, cars) that either cost too much or go unused much of the time. There are a lot of positives in this – the focus of AirBnB’s session was on sharing, social relationships and trust. Lots of great insights into doing “social business” in this write-up here.
Meanwhile the most exciting presentations and displays were those looking at the question of just how people can connect to digital experiences and information. The one with real wow factor was Revel, a haptic (touch-based) technology from Olivier Bau of Disney Research. This offered the deeply extraordinary possibility of altering the user’s tactile perception of surfaces based on tapping into the electrostatic signals sent within our skin and nerves. I loved this for how it revealed the human body as already electronic – a truly cyborg technology.
There was also a lot of buzz around Leap Motion’s gestural control interface, soon to go on widespread sale for only $99. This allows for very natural, intuitive hand-based interaction with objects on screen. Unlike the XBox Kinect, which requires big gestures and whole-body movement, the Leap Motion is sensitive to subtle hand movements and can capture the movement of each of 10 fingers indepedently. Pure Minority Report. Finally, in the gaming expo, the Oculus Rift headset was held up as “the holy grail of gaming” for the deeply immersive experiences it allows developers and creatives to share.
Meanwhile on Monday 11th Google demoed the slicker-looking Glass, their “smart specs” designed to bring both the recording and the information aspects of a smartphone to a heads-up display. Sergey Brin sought to claim this was less distracting than gazing down at your phone all the time – but SXSW was not convinced by the future of total surveillance and continuous partial attention he proffered.
Word of the week: “Glassholes”, coined to capture all the ways Google Glass is going to mess up interpersonal interaction. While some have observed that the Glass backlash is functioning as a locus for all our fears about technology, from web cookies to digital-ADHD, it’s still true that Google’s presentation on the Monday didn’t do much to reassure people. Here are 35 arguments against it.
[Image credit: Engadget, via AndroidDoes.net]
2 other things worth noting:
- The rise of Android (or Samsung’s mega marketing budget)
- Vine, Snapchat and micromedia
The big topic of discussion: Has SXSW jumped the shark?
“SXSW is the 21st-century equivalent of a medieval market town, just with more horseshit. It’s an orgy of capitalism, an unrestrained, unselfconscious celebration of sales, marketing, branding, and “gamification.” Even the dumbest of memes have been recruited in the service of sales. Grumpy Cat is here, and she wants you to buy Friskies.”
[South Buy Southwest: At America's Biggest Tech Conference, It's All About the Sell - Nick Baumann, Mother Jones]
I saw Grumpy Cat in the Mashable tent with fans queuing up to be photographed with her. This was deeply absurd – and she looked furious.
[Image credit: Buzzfeed, gofwd.tumblr.com]
The Onion’s parodies were also bang on (well, they did give a keynote last year…)
- Word ‘Innovate’ Said 650,000 Times At SXSW So Far
- SXSW As Cool And As Real As It Gets, Reports Marketing Associate
- Arm & Hammer Representative Starting To Wonder What He’s Doing At SXSW
Meanwhile I tweeted with friends back in the UK on the hashtag #FakeSXSW. Lunchtime margaritas and marketing spin meant the line between real products, prototypes, “vaporware” and “design fiction” got pretty fuzzy. At one point, I’m sure I attended a panel called The End Of Reality…
But what was it really all about?
The convergence of digital and physical.
Interfaces are about how we connect our physical, sensory bodies to digital displays. Augmented reality seeks a seamless meshing of the two. The sharing economy is about using digital and social technology to help us better manage our property. And MakerBot’s 3D scanners and printers give us a technology that can digitise the physical, digitally manipulate it – and print this new hybrid object back out into physical reality.
These are ideas that tech theorists have been hashing around for a couple of years. Nathan Jurgenson’s essay on ‘digital dualism‘ (2011) is important reading – he argues that the belief that the digital world is “virtual” and the physical world “real” is fundamentally a false dichotomy. Instead the two are deeply interlinked and there is nothing “unreal” about our actions online. Last year’s much-discussed panel The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices (2012) was also key for providing a space to talk about this “eruption of the digital into the physical“, and the resultant hybrid visual culture when there are as many computers sensing and measuring the world as people.
In more pragmatic business terms:
Every business is a digital business now, or should be. Your “Head of Digital” shouldn’t just be a 30-something creative technologist – it’s the job of your CEO to lead on these challenges and opportunities.
Also, what exactly is a non-digital advertising agency? Marketing agency? Research agency?
Finally, it’s a clarion call to rethink and sort out “consumer touchpoints”. Seamless web and in-store purchasing. Fluent digital-physical branding. No mis-information from store staff that’s contradicted by the store website (or a quick Google from your phone while you argue with them…) We’re getting there – online shopping can be delivered in-store, in-store shopping can be delivered to your home, and fashion brands like Burberry and Topshop connect the catwalk, their websites and their stores with growing confidence.
What does this mean for market research?
First, that these are the consumer trends, clients’ business challenges, and technologies we need to get our heads round. It’s not just for people working in social media research or cutting edge mobile ethnography – even if you work on quant trackers, there’s something in here that affects the questions you should be asking and how you should be reaching people to get those answers.
But really, I go to SXSW to get perspectives beyond the industry. I’m 27. Am I going to be working in something called a “market research agency” in 10 years time? (In 5 years? In three?) My clients are still going to need someone to help them navigate consumers and communications technology – but are they gong to look to “market research” per se to do that? Quite.
There’s something interesting going on between marketing, and media, and technology – it’s a difficult and unsolved problem, how to marry these three. Even (or especially) the most ridiculous parts of SXSW – they still give me a read on this. That’s why I go. Perhaps next year it’s time to pull together a panel and offer a point of view…