SXSW: Five first impressions

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GE built a super smoker for its Science of BBQ installation at SXSW.
GE built a super smoker for its Science of BBQ installation at SXSW.

"The smartest people in the room were sitting next to me in the room." Huge's VP of business strategy says experiences and interaction rule the day in Austin

AUSTIN — I’ve been in digital for a long time, but this was the first year I finally made it to SXSW — and it did not disappoint. As much I wanted to resist the Britney Spears dancers, mechanical bulls and mobile advertisers with shiny globes on their heads, FOMO kept me from looking away. After three days on the ground, there are five takeaways that I’ve left with.

First, SXSW isn’t about how to build tech; it’s about how to relish it. Everyone I met with, spoke to and heard speak was deeply vested in the point of view that tech isn’t coming  — it’s already here. From app-agnostic motion controllers, to VR headsets, and applications of smartphone tech in space — SXSW is about those companies that are already doing it.

Second, "live" brand activations are (still) immensely effective. Almost every brand on the ground at SXSW hosted an event or hosted a house for the weekend. And every event was highly oversubscribed. Not surprisingly, the most compelling events were the ones where "something happened" — either an experience was created (Dove’s Ladies Lounge); a question was posed (GE’s Science of BBQ outdoor installation with a 20-foot smoker); or a reveal was staged (Jaguar’s XE reveal on the roof of a Sixth Street bar). The brands that did it right knew their audience and created something experiential that stayed true to their brand voice. It’s interesting to see so many "analog" brand experiences at a "digital" event — but it goes to show the basics of advertising haven’t changed that much.

Third, our digital social networks and our physical social networks can live in harmony. It was amazing to see the range of communication tools everyone was using to get their friends and colleagues to the same place. WhatsApp, Facebook, SMS, and even simple hollers across Sixth Street were bringing people together every day. The seamlessness of how everyone connected, found each other, reconnected and made new discoveries was indicative of the world we’re turning into.

Fourth, virtual reality isn’t mainstream yet, but it will be. I spent almost two hours at the Samsung house listening to its engineers and user experience leaders talk about product innovation and testing the VR headset. It was likely the most compelling experience I had all weekend. The clarity of the visual and the fully immersive nature of the experience were completely unexpected. There’s a tipping point ahead where immediate use cases in home theater, theme parks and education will be perfectly clear. And where extended use cases in medicine, manufacturing, and operations will gain more traction. And given what I saw at SXSW, we’re very nearly there.

And last, perhaps the structured SXSW schedule could use a format change. The richness of the learning, sharing and exchange of ideas that happened at the brand events and houses "in the field" was hard to match "inside the building." No doubt there are great talks and immensely respected speakers all week long — but it still skews more "talk at" than "talk with." More working sessions options, round tables versus rows of chairs, planted questions against a given topic, etc. might take this event up a notch. The smartest people in the room were literally sitting next to me in the room — and finding more ways to drive that direct interaction would be amazing.

SXSW was a stellar event, and I’ll definitely be back. The learning value, the relationships created and the exposure to all things tech and interactive is unparalleled and definitely worth the trip.

Naseem Sayani is vice president, business strategy, with Huge.

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