SXSW Interactive: The New World, In Microcosm

David Keene– As the industry buzz surrounding SXSW Interactive has grown rapidly year-over-year in the past three years, with major unveilings at past years’ events from the likes of Twitter and Groupon, it was time to report from the field– as daunting as that task can be. Daunting? How hard can it be to cover a trade conference? If you have to ask that question, you’ve never been to SXSW– SXSW Music, SXSW Film, or SXSW Interactive. That’s right, SXSW adds on new layers of “trade shows” and “conferences” every year. This year, they added SXSW EDU (education), and SXSW Comedy. (Oh, and last year they added SXSW Fashion). The logistics of these overlapping events are mind-boggling. SXSW Interactive alone covered a half dozen different venues spread over a large section of Austin. I tried counting the official Speakers listed in the (274 glorious, glossy, printed, dead tree pages) SXSW Interactive Catalog. There were more than 2,500 Speakers featured at SXSW Interactive, that wrapped last week, over a period of five days. How does any reporter respond to an onslaught of that magnitude? Is it possible to evaluate hundreds of sessions ranging from “Brands as Patterns” (would fit nicely into any of the more conventional DOOH conferences in this country) to “Sex Workers and Social Media”? The latter topic has not to my knowledge been covered at NRF, NAB, DSE, CETW, or any other industry show I’ve attended. Alas, how much of such a conference can one reporter take in? (Perhaps if SXSW organizers had not rejected out of hand my request for Press Credentials for my student intern who is studying advanced issues in journalism at the University of Texas on a Scholarship from the Los Angeles Times– and maybe by being a bit more parsimonious with full conference credentials for the likes of Kitty Stryker who presided over the break-out session on empowering hookers with new technology tools could have enabled me to cover more ground? Just a thought…)

It’s easy to be cynical about the events in Austin, in what is now the largest cross-industry Spring Break in all of history. Easy to quip about the overwhelming number of sessions offered. Let’s put that aside, and cut to the chase: SXSW Interactive, is as far from the Ivory Tower as you can get. If you want to feel good about your company, and want to hole up in the comfort of your pre-conceived notions of where the DOOH industry is going, then don’t go to SXSW. If you want to see what is happening in the real world while you were admiring your own PowerPoint deck, then beg, borrow, or steal your way to Austin next spring for SXSW Interactive. I’m a veteran of countless industry trade events, in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. I’ve covered the digital transition in Broadcast TV. I’ve followed and analyzed Digital Cinema. I’m an expert in Digital Signage, and Digital Out of Home (DOOH) technology and marketing trends. I’ve moderated countless panels, and spoken at events in New York, Las Vegas, Athens, and San Francisco. I’ve consulted with Intel, Sony, Samsung, Texas Instruments, and more. I’ve never been as unnerved, excited, aggravated, amazed, and frustrated by a trade event. Amazed at the organizational abilities of the show? No. Impressed the pretentious Keynote addresses? No, amazed because SXSW is the most important hot-bed of real-world new technology and social trends I’ve ever witnessed. The sessions, the thousands of speakers– there’s no way you can take in 1/100th of the official activities. Just look at the attendees, the Sponsors. Look at the technology being used at the event. I repeat that: the technology being used, by the attendees, on the street and the lobbies and blogging rooms and parties–not in demos on a trade show floor. Being used at and for the event itself. Look the Brands involved. Involved on a 24-7, real time basis, interacting with attendees, with customers, with media (BTW, major Sponsors of SXSW Interactive included ISIS, Microsoft, IFC, Pepsico, AT&T, Miller Lite, Chevrolet, and Monster Energy)– and I have not seen such a feeding frenzy of corporate sponsors pouring money into a trade show since the height of the dotcom boom circa the CES show 1999). Yes, there is an amazing offering of sessions, panels, and conventional exhibits on the show floor of SXSW– if you can physically get to them (not an easy task in a city whose infrastructure is overwhelmed by the influx of 100,000 attendees– and there were too many important sessions to list here, for example the refreshingly titled session on Analytics “Media Measurement: Science, Art, or a Load of Crap?”). But that’s not where you will be amazed. You will be amazed at the ability to witness, up close and aggravatingly personal, how the world of Media, Social Media, Advertising, Interactivity, and Education are changing– so rapidly that there is no one conventional trade conference to address it all. There is SXSW– a circus of what is happening today, to consumers, students, employees, fans, and entire industries as they jettison all our pre-packaged messaging and tools we think they need, and jump head first into the BYOD movement (that’s Bring Your Own Digital). It’s not pretty. It’s not a lot of fun, to navigate a riot (jostling for hotel, restaurant, meeting space with Music, Film, and other attendees). It’s not for the squeamish. But this cross-pollination (maybe we should just take a page from the SXSW Session Synopsis writers and call it a Media and Technology CF) of technology users (not just professionals) is the future. Period.

Trying to drill down to our industry-specific buzz, at SXSW Interactive:

Samsung had their “Hub Media Wall” and website designed to help attendees navigate the conference this year. The Samsung SXSW Interactive Hub Media Wall is “a one stop destination that can advise where the conference action can be found in real time.”: The media wall and web platform was created by Samsung and data visualization firm JESS3 specifically for SXSW Interactive, and featured real-time data visualization of top tweets and photos, popular locations, and recommended panels.

(Also, Samsung sponsored a panel on Saturday, March 10th at SXSW Interactive that explored the impact of digital innovation on the Olympic Games. With the London 2012 Games promising an unprecedented explosion of social networking, the panel looked at how convergence technology is shaping the audience's connection to and engagement with thousands of Olympic athletes and events.)

Of course no trade show is complete without an Awards program.

South by Southwest Interactive closed last Tuesday with the 15th Annual Interactive Awards. The awards honored some hot new portals like Pinterest and Storify, and some new ones you may have never heard of.

For the record, these were some of the top winners:

• Amusement: LEGO Life of George

Lego's Life of George (opens in new tab) won this year's award in the amusement category.

The amusement category is for "humor, memes, games, interesting projects and all the stuff that is weird for the sake of weird."

• Breakout Digital Trend: Pinterest

Pinterest won the award at this year's show for best Breakout Digital Trend.

• Business: SCREW*D

SCREW*D won this year's Business category award.

The category is "devoted to the promotional needs, functions and services of for-profit businesses." (Y&R Chicago, a marketing/communications company, did the creative for the interactive show created for Craftsman tools. The show is about a not-so-handy Chicagoan who gets dropped in the middle of nowhere with an earpiece and a set of Craftsman tools. To survive, he sought the help of handier folks on social media.)

• Social Media: Storify

Storify, a site that helps users tell stories using social media dominated the Social Media category this year.

The Social Media category is for "users and campaigns that are creatively connecting and sharing their experience."

• Technical Achievement: Eye-Fi iPad App

The Eye-Fi iPad app (opens in new tab) allows you to upload full resolution photos & videos directly from your digital camera to your iPad, and won this year's Technical Achievement award.

The Technical achievement award is for "projects that are re-inventing and re-defining the technical parameters of our online experience."

Nothing earth-shattering, if you live and work in the more DOOH, or even OOH side of the biz. Again this year, as in past years, at SXSW “Interactive” is not about large screens, but about break out social media, of just new web sites.

Interestingly, I ran into Jill Miller, COO of Immersive Labs in the lobby of SXSW Interactive. Having just barely made it to SXSW on the heels of attending the DSE in Las Vegas, I was surprised to find Jill at SXSW. I guess I should not have been. What was Immersive Labs doing at SXSW Interactive? “We were invited by PepsiCo. to run their (5) outposts, DOOH network, with CARA, our Smart Face Detection and Adaptive Advertising platform,” Jill explained. “We were tasked with providing real time data of the viewership. Information including; gender, age, dwell time, glances , top ads and busiest time of day. These statistics were fed into PepsiCo Zeitgeist, a real-time ticker of social media activity around SXSW. The PepsiCo Zeitgeist was debuted at SXSW Interactive a couple years ago to monitor the pulse of the Conference by mining SXSW social media conversations and presenting emerging trends. It was a fantastic opportunity, and the response to our platform was overwhelming!”

I asked Jill, at SXSW Interactive, with all the companies here, all the press, etc. how would you explain that nowhere do you read, hear, or see the words "digital signage", or "DOOH" (Digital Out of Home)?

“The quick response is everybody was at DSE,” Miller replied. “The real answer is the Interactive conference has it roots in the Internet side of the digital equation. This year mobile applications were everywhere. It became somewhat amusing to learn there is an "APP" for just about anything! I would expect to see more in use of networked digital signs at future shows, however they will be a part of the overall customer experience not singled out. This show is about solutions not software or hardware.”

So what can the DOOH industry (i.e. everyone that went to DSE not SXSW) learn from SXSW Interactive? Jill Miller: “The tone of the conference was one that encouraged innovation through collaboration. The over arching theme this year was on the convergence of the digital world with the offline world (real world). This intersection is important to those in the digital out of home space, as networked digital signs allow marketers to continue the conversation with their customers. It is important to get outside DOOH industry events and participate in shows that take a larger look at the customer journey. It provides technologists an opportunity to collaborate on solving pain points and creating innovative solutions with other vendor technologies to create a more relevant customer experience.”

Well said.

Finally, take a look at a couple of videos put together by the Agency, Porter Novelli. They’re in the sprit of SXSW. Intern-less, overworked, and more than a bit overwhelmed by SXSW, I’ll let a (corporate) rapper end this report:!

The AVNetwork staff are storytellers focused on the professional audiovisual and technology industry. Their mission is to keep readers up-to-date on the latest AV/IT industry and product news, emerging trends, and inspiring installations.