Echoes of Austin: inspirational queues, AI, VR and dancing caterpillars

Echoes of Austin: inspirational queues, AI, VR and dancing caterpillars

My first experience of SXSW didn’t get off to a great start on Friday. The queues to many popular sessions were huge and I missed several talks because “we’re full” echoed down the line.  

With the streets inundated with over 20,000 SXSW fanatics, you can imagine that it’s overwhelming. So many things to see, watch and hear. 10 to 20 talks at the same time, spread over 100 venues in the shape of Convention Centres, hotels, pop-up venues, bars and restaurants. There’s an urge to pack in as much as possible, but it’s impossible, so one has to be schedule ruthless or there’s little chance to eat, breathe or process the content one does pick up.

It’s not just technology, film and music, there are life skills and workplace issues in the mix. Literally something for everyone. Meet ups for every conceivable interest group, publicity stunts on the street – my favourite was for a new Bravo series, Stripped, where a flash mob of ripped and toned youth ran around the streets screaming. Snapchat Gold.

The bipolar weather – rain the size of a fist one hour, blistering heat the next – didn’t dampen spirits over the weekend. If anything it added to the festival spirit, all we lacked was mud.

On sunday the exhibition opened and wow, I panted like a hot puppy within seconds through the hall doors. Aside from a super cool China Pavilion, packed with the hottest startups the nation has to offer right now.  The Japanese section was sensorily immense. Prototypes alongside polished health and consumer tech.

As a motorcyclist I was particularly taken by a helmet with both a head-up display and a rear mounted camera, conceived by a guy who used to design Yamaha sports bikes. Voice-activated sumo wrestlers, dancing caterpillar robots and VR drone trickery, were the ice cubes in my tea.

Elsewhere I played with the latest in VR for fashion, experienced an electronic back massage and had my throat electrocuted in the interests of empathy for people with a stutter.

It’s not just the tech, it’s the connections. I shared a Fasten, the local version of Uber, with an Italian creative director, based in Chicago, and found out we had a mutual German friend and had both worked for the same ad agency in Beijing.

In a bar, I got talking to NASA’s social media manager, met a band who invited me to their gig, which led to the exchange of business cards with the mighty actor/stuntman/pro-wrestler, Chaz Taylor.

Creative Social is here in force, Bristol Media has a delegation, as does the IPA. Lots of friendly faces and friends I haven’t made yet.

Strolling – or dashing – between venues reveals a street vibe of smiles and multiculturalism. The city is alive with music and the hum of positivity. It’s also the best place to be for swag. Lunch is generally a fistful of protein, fruit bars, yoghurts, fruit juices or energy shots handed out by smiling samplers.

So what have I learnt? How geeks in China are cool, what the latest VR and machine learning trends are, activism in the social media era, how tech drives new trends in China, and how living in a dumpster inspired one entrepreneur to invest in AI to transform our living spaces. And that’s just the first couple of days.

Mark Terry-Lush
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