An interesting Intersection

When SXSW was conceived in 1987, it was a small music conference celebrating Austin, the world’s live music capital. This year it roped in 16,000 people offering art, films and more

An interesting Intersection
What happens when music, film and interactive coalesce? You have the biggest congregation of artists, digital mavens and geeks. This was the last few days for me when I wandered around Austin downtown wearing my most comfortable shoes to make the most of South By South West (SXSW) taking in the sessions, stepping into a few workshops, listening to charismatic keynotes, watching start ups pitch, walking around the Tradeshow, listening to authors and celebrities and catching a few after event parties.

Ask anyone what they enjoyed about SXSW and no two answers will be the same. For others, SXSW was the venue to conduct business and broker deals. From big brands bringing their A game to start-ups looking for funding and recognition. Music gigs for bands, screenings for filmmakers, book signings for authors, workshops for agencies, panels and sessions for every topic under the sun.

When SXSW was conceived in 1987, it was a small music conference celebrating Austin, the live music capital of the world. It just drew around 700 registrants. Today, SXSW is more than music, which brought in 16,000 people. It includes Film and Interactive with another 32,000 registrants.

So what were the big themes for me?

-- The intersection of art and science

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s keynote was a great example that science is on its way to acquiring the cool “rock star” status. At the event to promote the launch of his much awaited series, Cosmos, the astrophysicist charmed the audience with his ease in communicating the importance of curiosity and discovery to all ages. Winning the speaker of the event award, deGrasse Tyson says the “real winner is that science is rising, technology is rising.”

Another good keynote was Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23 and me, who was passionate about the future of genetics in our lives. Making a compelling argument for preventative medicine, she spoke about the burgeoning $2.7 trillion healthcare industry that profits from illness. Genetic testing was key to personalised medicine.

Adam Savage’s discussion around art and science was equally thought provoking saying that unlike what is commonly believed, art and science are not opposites. “Art and science have always been the twin engines pushing us forward as a species.”

-- The future of design

Design was discussed everywhere. Companies are hiring experienced user interface (UI) and UX (user experience) designers. Apple’s foray into intuitive design, which is integrated so completely into its products that it produces an emotional response in the user, is now becoming a mantra. Is it a car or a computer on wheels? Designers and developers working together is another area where art and science interlock. From design for identity, design for the user’s attention to design with data, integrating across the board has become a critical success factor.

-- Privacy and exile

The much-anticipated discussions came from two high profile speakers who were not at the event. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden spoke to the crowd about the implications of big brother and the power of the people. Snowden said, “The people who are in the room in Austin right now, they are the folks who can really fix things. They can enforce our rights through technical standards, even if Congress hasn’t yet gotten to the point of creating legislation to protect our rights.”

-- Data deluge

It is still data; data everywhere clogging up the airways and the highways. With information now streaming through wearables, scannables, driveables, there is a massive amount of personal information accumulated by companies that is lying under utilised. Marketers are already mining through this information to create more personalised engagement with end users. We can expect to see more brands like Google, Nike, Amazon and Samsung start to surface insights and turn it into cross sell opportunities.

-- The big ideas of small start-ups

Many including me, turned to the start up accelerator to watch finalist pitch their company’s technology to a panel of judges. Though winning the grand prize was a big deal, it was the visibility and acclaim that was priceless for these companies. This was by far the best part of my SXSW experience. Of the many finalists, it was great to hear that Waygo, a company that has created an app that can translate Chinese and Japanese text by just pointing the phone at the image. Internet connection is not needed. Or take the other winner, Trustev, which provides real-time online identity verification that can eliminate fraud from your e-commerce transactions.

-- Algorithms and the news

A very interesting session was the fireside chat between New York Time’s David Carr and Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser. Upworthy that has enjoyed a rapid rise to stardom attracts about 50-60 million viewers a month. When asked about the importance of algorithms, Pariser defined it as a piece of code that sorts through information and outputs a response. Content filtering algorithms can figure out what will trend and how quickly it will be consumed. Another forerunner for further disruption in the publishing industry.

(Shaku Selvakumar is a US-based marketing and digital communications

expert; and founder of Coeuredge, a digital experience company)


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