SXSW Interactive 2013 Overview - The future is here, now #SXSW2013

By Tom Kelshaw, Director of Technology at Metalworks by Maxus

Arriving in Austin, Texas for the 2013 South By SouthWest Interactive festival (SXSW) was like being teleported into The Future. Sci-fi props were everywhere: hologram pitchwomen from 3M, articulated robots from GE making lattés, teleportation and telepresence from AT&T and Makerbot. The unofficial theme: the future is here, now.

Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis opened the festival announcing the Makerbot Digitizer, a 3D scanner allowing hobbyists to scan and send (“teleport”) simple objects, re-fabricated by a 3D printer. Currently, replications are crude, mono-coloured and limited in material, but how long until the luxury goods, auto parts and furniture industries get Napstered?

No more breakout software

The past few South-by’s have anointed the breakout apps of the social, the local and mobile (sorry, “SoLoMo”) revolution. This year, the closest to a breakout (make-out?) app was Tinder. The Grindr-for-straights dating app launched late 2012 and has had over 1.5 billion “hot-or-not” profile ratings. Tinder was everywhere, their system getting a good stress-test from the legion of horny nerds looking to connect with University of Texas sophomores. Expect to see teeth whitening, condom and body spray brands all over Tinder as soon as marketing directors start admitting they use it.

Hardware is the new everything

In 2013, SoLoMo is so, so lame. The future is SoHa – social hardware; what SXSW speaker Baratunde Thurston called the “internet-of-crap”. Everything embedded with sensors and talking with everything else; new interfaces connecting and augmenting our sporting, eating, walking and shagging (cheers, Tinder).

Google Glass hugely hyped and attended demonstrations failed to actually wow the crowd. The interface seems limiting. Maybe that lensless design is just a little too Star Trek. There were rumours of collaboration with eyeglass purveyors Warby Parker, so muttering to ourselves, shaking our head and immediately knowing any piece of trivia, Rainman-style, will at least look hip.

Leap Motion took over a whole parking lot to launch their gestural interface device and had attendees gesticulating at screens like Minority Report maestros.

We saw the future of porn: android consorts (running Android) and teledildonics, connected to social networks of likeminded perverts. And tech-sex is not just for humans: in his keynote, Al Gore spoke about the rise of social hardware in farming, including sensors embedded in cows which SMS farmers when they’re in heat - “the world’s first inter-species sexting”.

Google & Adidas revealed a talking shoe project. Razorfish loaned out bikes that tweeted when they were abandoned (or stolen). Elon Musk’s keynote proved that through audacity (and buyout cash), any entrepreneur can build rocket ships and electric cars.

Hardware need not tweet to be social: Local Motors CEO explained how they are disrupting the US automotive industry through open source car engineering and collaborating on vehicles with Domino’s and Shell.

So what will brands do with SoHa? The bar has been set by Nike+ and Fuelband; social devices that award points for activity in an evolving ecosystem. Today there’s no reason a wet nappy can’t update a Facebook status. Or a device that measures improvements in driving mileage and safety can’t earn you enviro-insuro-points. The future is here, we have the technology, we can make it.

Why do marketers need to make stuff? Historically, only the greatest industrialists and brands could both produce and advertise, and they separated the functions. Now any idiot with a credit card and pirated software can launch a billion-dollar app, run a decent looking TV spot and spew banner ads across an ad network. Soon they’ll be adding social hardware to that internet-of-crap. For big brands with big budgets and clever agencies, there’s a very short window to differentiate by making awesome things, before everyone with a 3D printer and a Kickstarter account can do it better. 

In his closing remarks, cyberpunk author and SXSWi’s patron cynic Bruce Sterling warned: “those who live by disruption, die by disruption.” He mocked the concept of the Personal Computer. That abandoned, disconnected, static, stone-grey box. A revolutionary object that emerged and became extinct in just 20 years. Blogs – those destroyers of publishing worlds – where were the blog platforms at SXSW this year, Sterling asked? In just six years they’ve been subsumed by 160 characters of text, six seconds of video, wiggling-your-ears-and-winking to post updates via Google Glass. We’re addicted to change, obsessed with the bringing the future into the present, and now it’s here.