SXSW14: Rediscovering the feeling of something in your hand

Conor Brady, chief creative officer, Critical Mass
Conor Brady, chief creative officer, Critical Mass

Polaroids, vinyl records and silver rings: this year SXSW was all about how the analogue world that has been given a new life in the digital one, writes Conor Brady, chief creative officer at Critical Mass.

It is the same every year I come to SXSW. I find myself about 30 minutes after breakfast wandering around a street somewhere with my mind stuck hopelessly in an infinite loop somewhere between FOMO and finding things that sound interesting.

At the start of the week you will usually get a rant from me on how SXSW is "over-subscribed and over programmed" but by the end of the week I will have found some things that are inspiring and made me glad I came. So I guess it all still works. This year I was surprised to find the things that interested me most were essentially analogue, but have been given a new life by digital.

These things were a Polaroid, a piece of plastic, a ring, and essentially feeling insecure about people stealing my stuff.

Polaroids and cutting vinyl

Outside of the big stage venues I find the most inspirational stuff walking around the vendor floor and the workshop sessions. This year I found two things in particular that made an old designer happy. Two formats that I loved but unfortunately with the march of progress were killed by digital. The irony of these formats getting a rebirth because of digital is not lost.

The process is easy and incredibly gratifying. It felt so nice to hold a Polaroid in my hand again.

The first was the Impossible Project, the guys behind buying the old Polaroid factory and bringing back instant film. Their Instant Lab product can take any image captured on your iPhone and transfer it to any of their re-launched instant film packs. The process is easy and incredibly gratifying. It felt so nice to hold a Polaroid in my hand again. 

They are cutting vinyl at SXSW. My jaw dropped when I saw this. For about $4500 you can have your very own record-making machine made by Vinyl Recorder (note: do not be put off by their website, this is the real deal). They were taking MP3s right off phones and making vinyl on their booth. The quality was incredible for such an instant product and they even had transparent vinyl to help recreate the lost art of the picture disc.

The healthcare debate

Even if you never attended a single talk (I debated) and built your whole festival experience from what was over-heard at the taco stand it is pretty obvious the big themes this year are healthcare and privacy.

Of the presentations I did see, some resonated and some didn’t -- pretty much as expected. Between technological difficulties and what seemed to be Julian Assange’s need to rant, as much as I wanted to love what he was saying, it just didn’t resonate. Edward Snowden on the other hand was direct, focused and carried a really good argument, and I walked away actually really impressed with him. Someone joked "Maybe we should have him run oversight on the NSA." After his talk, I think I would trust him more than the NSA right now.

For the healthcare discussion, the most interesting quote I heard was at the Steve Case talk, which really wasn’t about healthcare at all. Case, the former chief executive of AOL, made a point about how we don’t really manage healthcare in the U.S. at all: we manage sickness. He spoke about how there is a massive opportunity for entrepreneurship in this area.

One company that I love that has done this is 23andme. If I am completely honest (and probably be hung drawn and quartered for saying it), the talk from Anne Wojicki, the leader of 23andme, bored me as it felt more like a product pitch for something I can’t buy right now. In the end the wait in the queue was made worth it with an excellent Q&A by Re/Code’s Kara Swisher, who pushed the conversation toward why we should do genetic testing at all.

Gesture control

The last thing to mention is on the ever-popular wearable technology discussion, debate, vertical, kickstarter, industry… I am not really sure what it is yet. I stumbled onto the Logbar Ring in the exhibition hall, a beautiful gesture-control input device. It that was still looking for funding before SXSW, but after the exhibition it appears to have demolished that goal. It will allow you to do everything from control connected products to open your email via a gesture library.

The thing that I loved most about the ring is that it has been designed to also look good. Think a beautiful silver ring that also happens to be digital, not the other way around. They have nailed the technology in the product but also made an effort to create something that won’t make you look like a dork when you wear it (insert Google Glasses cringe here). Something that I think a lot of wearable products do not invest enough time in.

In the end I struggle sometimes to connect the value of SXSW to what we do, what can I bring back to a client that justifies me spending a week down here. I think I could best sum it up in, as we relentlessly chase the next cool thing and that "need" to be first constantly shadowed by the FOMO, sometimes we could do ourselves all a favor and look at what is already right in front of us and put our efforts into making it better. Something like healthcare for instance.

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