The Complete and Comprehensive Must-Know Must-Have SxSW 2016 Tech Takeaways

by Lindsay Nie, Head of Creative Technology

I was fortunate this year to head down to Austin, TX for the 2016 SxSW festival. After several days of listening to speakers, asking questions of panels, experiencing activations, testing out new tech, and stuffing myself with endless tacos it was clear to me that we are right on the cusp between tech becoming smart and tech/data enhancing our lives.

All aspects of SxSW this year, from startups, to big corporations, seem focused on finding ways to make sense of the incredible amount of technology that has emerged in recent years.

The collective momentum is aimed at bringing meaning to people’s lives by solving problems, providing value, and extending connections and experiences with other people (both in the personal and corporate sense).

IoT Takeover

These days it seems that everything is “smart”, connected, and accessible via a smartphone. Lights in your house are controlled by your phone, health bands track your steps, your sleep, your heart rate, and you can share this with your friends, enemies and probably even Starbucks.

You can buy a fork that tracks how fast you chew and vibrates if you should slow down, or a tray for your fridge that sends you a text when you are out of eggs.

Now that the tech/consumer industry has shown us that everything can be connected and constantly collecting data, designers and engineers are focusing on ways to take all of this smart data and make our lives better. This was evident across all streams of SxSW.

One of the Keynote speakers for SXSWInteractive was CEO of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, who in addition to selling shoes and shirts recently launched the Connected Fitness division in a billion dollar bet to beat Nike.

To date they have over 147 million digital members providing ongoing data with around 1 million new people being added to the platform every week. These members have logged over 2 billion workouts and 8 billion foods in the last year alone!

“That kind of data can not only help reveal how far people of a certain age and health might run on average, but over time reveal patterns about what works best and even how much exercise could be dangerous,”Plank said. “Data is the new oil.”

In conjunction with their new HealthBox, a suite of connected fitness devices including a fitness tracking band, scale and heart rate monitor, Under Armour has partnered with IBM’s Watson to create an app that does “cohort analysis” to give users, as IBM promises, more accurate fitness, nutrition and health insights.

Speaking of IBM, they are actively trying to spread the word to developers about Watson and the endless possibilities for making sense out of the growing mass of data, and using that knowledge to enhance lives. IBM’s Cognitive Studio took over a steakhouse—literally gutting the place, building new walls, redecorating, and even painting the outside in IBM white and blue—in downtown Austin, offering guests 14 different ways to interact with Watson powered applications and workshops.

Now that massive amounts of data is available from all of the smart devices out there, IBM is giving the world an open toolbox of APIs to source in order to analyze data using things like natural language processing, analyzing tones in text or speech, personality insights, visual recognition, and analytics to name a few.

The Cognitive Studio featured demos of robots playing rock, paper, scissors, The Weather Company weather apps helping farmers predict what the growing season will be like next year, DJ Watson creating music on the fly, Pepper, a 3 foot tall robot that interacts with people, Chef Watson creating recipes, Bartender Watson creating drinks based on personality type, Under Armour’s new health tracking app, and several other stations where visitors could test drive existing Watson powered apps.

Taking The Proverbial IoT Smart Cake

One of the best campaigns, currently in execution, for smart things making lives better, is “The Connected Yard” by Scotts. The concept is centered around an app, Gro which helps customers determine what will grow best for them based on variables like their location, soil type, weather reports, weather history, reports of insect infestation, and data collected from smart devices such as Blossom and Rachio water sensors, GreenIQ and Lono irrigation control, and soil moisture sensors from PlankLink or Parrot.

At SxSW, Scotts had a raised planter version of a Connected Yard, showcasing some of the 3rd party sensors that collect the data which the app uses for recommendations. Scotts’ will have retail displays this summer where customers can sync their app to determine the right products to buy. And rumor has it, the app will even guide you to the right shelf in the store.

Where The World Is Going

Several of the speaker sessions that I attended focused on connected cities and the types of things we should expect to see soon with IoT. There was much talk about LinkNYC. An initiative to convert old pay phones into free wifi hubs with free phones, charging stations, and tablets to browse city services. The expectation is that many cities will adopt this same type of wifi/technology offering soon.

Advertising will also soon become even more personalized, based on signals your phone sends out to smart signs. We in the marketing space are going to have a whole lot of fun coming up with ideas that for this new "connected cities" channel. This is for sure an area to watch!

The AR/VR Buzz and What You Need To Know

Virtual Reality and Augmented Realty no longer simple enhance gaming and provide “wow” moments. Designers, Engineers and Marketers are working with organizations, both corporate and non-profit, to use mixed reality to tell a story. To put a person in a situation, environment or place and let them experience it from a first person perspective in a way that they never would be able to otherwise.

Gabo Arora and Chris Milk (two producers of some of the best VR content to date), made many appearances throughout SXSW talking about storytelling within VR and creating empathy in the viewer for the subject matter.

Using mixed reality to invoke these emotions gives marketers and foundations an instant and deeper connection to an individual, a connection that might not exist without the emotional experience. A few examples are the UN VR experiences, “Clouds Over Sidra”, “Waves of Grace” and “My Mother’s Wing”, and the Mini Cooper commercial, “Backwater”.

Mixed reality is a unique tool for storytelling and enables a deep emotional connection with the person experiencing the story and what is being shared. Consumers are just beginning to embrace VR/AR but, if they perceive that it provides value to them in some way, they will be more likely jump on the bandwagon.

The rapid growth of hardware and software platforms, that was so evident at SxSW, are allowing more and more people not only to view VR and even have it in their homes, but also to capture 360 video and begin publishing their own content.

Pocket 360 HD cameras are now available starting around $350. InstaVR has a free platform to create your own VR/360 app that can live on Gear VR, Google Cardboard, etc. VRapp hosts 360 video in a web browser and links content together to create a “tour”. A new app called Sphere enables capturing a 360 like image with any smartphone. Connect a new gadget called Galileo by Motrr and the app will control your phone and spin it to capture an even more precise 360 image.

The mixed reality revolution is here.

What Made My Jaw Drop?

Hands down, the most unbelievable, jaw-dropping technology that I experienced at SxSW was the 8kVR theater by NTT of Japan. I was so amazed that I watched the demo twice. 8KVR consists of 8K (yes, 8K!) video, mixed with 3D technology, and 22.2ch stereophonic sound. That's 16 times the resolution of HD!

The demo was a music video of sorts of a famous Japanese band, Sakanaction. As a viewer the band seemed to float in the air performing and playing their instruments in such crystal clear reality that after their performance was over, the audience even clapped! I felt like I was truly experiencing science fiction, with holograms dancing right in front of me, and no headsets required!

NTT hopes to partner with content producers to expand the offerings in 8KVR and start setting up these theaters either as activations or even in permanent locations. I personally feel this technology, when paired with the right content, has the power to give the viewer a real window into an event or a place that they would not otherwise be able to experience.

At one point in the video there was a shot of the side of a bridge in Japan and I honestly felt I was right there standing on the bridge and I could reach out and place my hand on the side rail. Seriously. To me, the brilliance of experiencing something so amazing with a collective audience far outranks the fully immersive VR experience inside a headset.

Runner-ups in Mind Blowing Tech

Interactive Table Top by Sony Future Labs

The coolest tech from the Sony Future Labs activation was the Interactive Table Top. A projector mounted above a table surface (or any flat surface) that uses motion tracking and depth sensors to make objects on the table seem to come to life.

The focus of the demo was Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland coupled with a tea cup and deck of cards. The illustrations in the book came to life when touched and could then be dragged over to the teacup or cards for even more interaction and animation. Words in the text could also be highlighted and taken off the page and onto the table for animation.

Obviously this was a carefully scripted and content enriched demo, but it shows how this technology could be built on in the future, and how it could pair with other technologies like Watson to recognize images and then pull content from elsewhere to project on the table, all guided by human touch.

Samsung Entrim 4D Headphones

Samsung let attendees test drive a demo version of their soon to be released Entrim 4D headphones that work in conjunction with the Gear VR to give the user a feeling of movement when watching VR.

The demo content was a race car driving on a very curvy track. Without the 4D engaged it felt like I would expect a VR car race to feel. With the 4D on, a very light electric current is placed behind the ears on a nerve which tricks the body into thinking it is moving. The feeling was quite fascinating. I did not feel any electric pulses but I most definitely did think I was feeling the force of the car as it went around the track!

What did I learn as a SxSW newbie?

Pay attention to social media! Seriously. You have to constantly watch each and every social social for announcements of the coolest tech, activations, and experiences, otherwise you will miss out!

There's a part two to this story. Subscribe to Catalyst and don't miss the rundown of our favorite SxSW 2016 brand activations!

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Explore Cramer and Event Marketer’s first 30 trends of 2017.

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Lindsay Nie

Head of Creative Technology / Cramer

Additional contributions by Jonathan Ronzio

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