SXSW 2019 - More of the Emperor's New Clothes?

See what Isobar's Tim Dunn has to say about this year's upcoming Austin extravaganza.

Innovation and tacos are a fissile mixture and there’s no greater risk of a tex-mex digital explosion than at SXSW.

But, while SXSW Interactive heads into its 12th year, it finds itself under pressure from other innovation events, especially CES, which are attracting marketer’s eyeballs through their greater promise of the tech breakthroughs, which modern marketers seek as de rigeur.

Perhaps some of this is down to SXSW’s unfortunate penchant towards Emperor’s-New-Clothes syndrome. Countless products launched at SXSW have sunk without trace almost immediately – (Meerkat? Highlight? Firechat?) – and forecasting this rollercoaster is all part of the fun.

But, these flameouts are perhaps just symptoms of a greater problem.  Much of the festival’s mainstream programming is dedicated to technologies that have a similar risk of failure-to-launch or, at least, those that are so far off they are essentially irrelevant at the current time.

Blockchain is the chief candidate.  It is currently being touted in upcoming sessions as the savior of everything -- from music distribution to cannabis to global poverty to the family unit. Rarely can a technology have been so widely hyped with such little to show for it -- that couldn’t be solved by a robust cloud-hosted database and a good set of web services. Gartner’s Hype Cycle currently has Blockchain descending into its ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ with a 5-10-year expectation of reaching any kind of productivity. While SXSW is rarely a forum for asking hard questions about realistic use cases or projections for tech, it might be that this particular hype bubble takes a few firm prods from reality.

Virtual Reality is not far behind Blockchain at the questionable end of the hype spectrum. Again, there are countless sessions on the subject, but how many people can honestly say they have had a meaningful VR experience more than once in the past year? Despite the potential for immersive experiences, few people seem to want one – at least so long as it requires strapping on a bulky headset – 2018 actually saw falls in sales as the novelty wore off. Perhaps second-gen sets, such as the Oculus Go will resuscitate the market but, as of now, it seems like VR has the same form-factor issues that plagued other new-category products like Google Glass. Will anyone at SXSW admit that, frankly, few people want to wear a headset regularly, and fewer still want to buy them? I wouldn’t count on it.

Cannabis is another area where there’s more smoke than fire. I struggle to see how much room for innovation this industry really brings. As a Canadian resident, I can assure you that legalization has made little impact on the lives of the drug’s habitual consumers, and the industry is wrapping itself in enough red tape and regulation to kill any buzz stone dead. Any new industry that is suddenly green-lit may seem exciting, but can we really justify a whole ‘Cannabusiness’ track?

Of course, there will be plenty of great material as always – Instagram founder Mike Krieger has a keynote in which he will likely take some heavy fire about creating an effective platform for foreign government misinformation; Nike will be talking about their process for creative concepts, and I expect a lively chat between luminaries from the New York Times and BuzzFeed about the future of media and journalism.

SXSW has its eyes on the sky – let’s just hope that this year there’ll be a bit more emphasis on keeping our feet on the ground.

Tim Dunn is the VP and director of strategy at Isobar US.

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