Highlights from SXSW 2016

highlights from SXSW 2016

By Mark W. Schaefer

If you have never been to SXSW before, it is truly impossible to describe how epic this event is. Tens of thousands of digital marketers, entrepreneurs, and investors from all over the world descend on Austin, Texas, each March. Throughout each day there may be 100 concurrent talks, meet-ups, special interest meetings, and networking parties.

To try to describe even high level themes for this event would be impossible … for anyone. It’s just too big and complicated. So from my very limited perspective, but one of total immersion, here are a few of my observations.

In this post I will cover a general themes, a few tech innovations, and a glimpse of the SXSW culture.

Very VR

There is absolutely no question that virtual reality ruled this year — Hardware, software, cameras, apps. Every event sponsor, including McDonald’s and Gillette, had immersive virtual reality experiences. And there were long lines to try it.

This is a technology that will affect us more profoundly that the Internet itself … eventually. VR is really still mostly hype at this point but almost every company at SXSW wanted to show how they are an early adopter, especially retail, automotive, and real estate.

Soon, a digital layer will surround us like the air that we breathe. VR is fun and addictive. It opens entirely new worlds for connection, discovery, and productivity.

In three years we will spend most of our day with a headset on, just like we use a laptop or smartphone today. This needs to be on your radar because this will fundamentally change marketing forever.

Influence Marketing

This surprised me. There were a number of sessions that directly or indirectly hit on influence marketing, There is no question that this is a mainstream and important marketing activity. I did not attend any of the main sessions because I feel I already know this topic well but it was definitely a strong subject of the conference.

Big data and content

There were lots of discussions about robo-content and algorithms that will either produce content or optimize content in such a way that it turns content marketing into little more than a mathematical battle.

I can see both sides of this. Businesses are going to want to produce the best content at the lowest cost. Why not use a computer program that never takes a day off or asks for a raise? And if you think that computers can never replace human writers, you’re wrong. It’s happening.

On the other hand … A blog fan recently sent me a nice note telling me that she starts each day with a cup of coffee and my blog. I have become part of the fabric of her life. Would she create an emotional attachment to a computer? Maybe, but let’s hope not.

Personal robots

highlights from SXSW 2016

Personal robot “Pepper” seemed to breathe and move naturally.

The robots on display got a lot of attention because they are cool and lovable but they are still years away from being mainstream I think.

The session I attended was interesting because it discussed the mannerisms they have to program into the robots to make them seem accessible and human enough to be accepted as a family member instead of an appliance.

The robot was a hit and will soon be integrated with IBM Watson to give it super-human intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence

This theme gathered momentum last year and was huge in 2016. A highlight of the conference for me was hearing Dag Kittlaus, the inventor of SIri, talk about the future of technology.

Today AI programs are approaching human thought — creating art, content, music, and poetry that is indistinguishable from human effort. His latest company, Viv, is creating a global brain where we “teach it” like we would contribute to Wikipedia.

He said we are a few years away from achieving a super intelligence that will be “mankind’s last invention.” He was frank about the ethical, legal and security problems this will present. And he would know.

Gender bias

There were several prominent panels addressing the lack of diversity in the tech industry. Undeniably, we are in a field of business that can be chauvinistic and bullying. It seems impossible to me that these are still even issues in 2016. Sadly, this is still a big deal and the conversation must continue … but I look forward to the day when people are just people.

The kids are alright

Kids compete in their homemade robot contest

Kids compete in their homemade robot contest

There seemed to be more families attending SXSW, at least the trade show. And why not? There were so many cool things that kids could love.

For the first time I attended an annual SXSW event called “Create,” which is a makers movement exhibition. More than half the people there were under the age of 15. This made me smile for an hour!

These little kids are so passionate and fearless with their technology. Children who were 6 or 7 were writing code for robots. That is so uplifting and amazing. The next generation of geeks are already here.

Some of the cool things.

Here is a photo gallery of some of the coolest technologies I observed.

fish counter

XpertCount can count and sort fish and other marine animals in a container, even when they are freely moving.

lily camera

Lily Camera is what you would get if blended a GoPro Camera with a drone.

You launch it like a Frisbee. Once it’s in the air, it can follow you on a hike or ski run with no further manipulation from a controller. And it’s water proof so take it on that kayaking trip!

Screenshot 2016-03-16 14.42.52

Here Active Listening system is a combination pf two wireless earbuds and a smartphone app that give you the power to control the sounds around you. They’re not headphones –It’s basically like having an EQ for the real world, with active noise cancellation thrown in.

Screenshot 2016-03-16 14.46.11

Ultimaker2 – 3D printing was the hot technology two years ago. This new 3D printer is easily portable, great for demonstrations and classrooms.

Screenshot 2016-03-16 14.50.17

Caress of the Gaze is one of the strangest yet captivating technologies on display. This garment on the right, made from what looks like plastic feathers, ripples and responds to the gaze of a person looking at the garment. So the garment more or less follows your gaze.

I talked to the inventor — it has absolutely no practical application, but could catch on a fashion trend in the future.

Screenshot 2016-03-16 14.57.16

Backslash is an award-winning student innovation. Basically this team thought through every possible catastrophe and created a way for you to communicate with the outside world and put it in a portable kit. One clever idea for example was a bandana that is a big QR code. If you were captured by terrorists, any photograph of you would carry the code, which links to pre-recorded messages about you and emergency procedures. Unfortunately, there is no current plan to commercialize. The website states: “We do not have plans to sell the kit or kickstart this project. Although they are functional devices, we made the kit as a case study to spark debate about the subject. We hope that none of these ever need to be used… Instead we want to help encourage local communities to join the conversation and engineer solutions as needed.”

The stakes are high

There is no way I can capture the electricity and frenzied activity at SXSW. But I took a video to show you how high the stakes are for many companies, big and small.

IBM wanted to show off its Watson cognitive computing capabilities in a huge way that would attract developers, partners, and potential new employees. They transformed one the city’s most popular upscale steak houses into a massive display of their technologies.

They literally put up new walls, painted, decorated, and temporarily transformed the restaurant. Many companies do this sort of thing during the festival and I wanted to show you a little about this to show you the corporate culture of SXSW. Here is a short video on how IBM did this and why:

Click here if you can’t see this interview with Cameron O’Connor of IBM.

Here are a few scenes from the IBM Interactive Center:

Screenshot 2016-03-16 15.33.25

At the Cognitive Bar, you can get a custom drink that is mixed by Watson to match your personality type.

Screenshot 2016-03-16 15.36.59

Here, an artist is painting a wall mural from the moods detected by Watson as people enter the IBM showcase.

Screenshot 2016-03-16 15.43.43

There were tons of data-driven activities to try. Robots, games, health applications for big data. Here I am taking a virtual reality tour on an exercise bike. Going down a big hill was a crazy sensation!

So those are a few highlights from SXSW 2016.

SXSW is expensive, crowded, and overwhelming. However it may also be the world’s greatest gathering of hope, and everybody should experience that at least once.


SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant. The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details

Share via