SXSW Interactive 2017: It Happened to Me

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We’re all gonna die. Find out which tech startups are getting us there faster!

I’ve just flown back from South By Southwest Interactive in beautiful, cold, and rainy Austin, TX last yesterwednesday and boy are my takes hot! Seven key themes emerged from this year’s conference, which are sure to dominate the conversation for the next 12 months until they are unceremoniously declared “over” at next year’s Southby.

Trend #1: Artificial Intelligence has arrived and it thinks you’re fat.

You may not be ready for a Smart Mirror to be in the dressing room with you, watching, always watching, but it’s coming anyway. Most everyone at SXSW is careful to label themselves “techno-optimists,” but that’s because they’re trying to sell you something.

In a panel on Human Intelligence (HI) + Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001), metal, mind, and body were represented by Adam Cheyer of Siri and Viv; Bryan Johnson of KerNEL, a human intelligence company; and Reshma Shetty, of Ginko Bioworks, the organism company. All three claim to want to empower people through technology, rather than simply harvesting their organs for power.

“Of course we’ll have class warfare between the neurologically augmented humans and others.”

Trend #2: Bio-hacking will allow HI to keep pace with AI.

There are too many people! Everywhere you look in Austin there are lines keeping you from what the content you wish to engage. Luckily, Biotech will let us bootstrap growthhack our way to neuro-augmented CRISPR-enabled platform class warfare by rewiring our brains to redistribute the universal basic income of the poor straight to the 1% with some fintech bitcoin peer-to-peer SaaS!

“The app economy is dead, so everyone just wants to talk about putting implants in your brain.” –The Vergecast Live at #NatGeoAtSXSW

Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry at the UC Berkeley, in her keynote on inventing CRISPR said she, too, was optimistic, and besides, there are lots of other terrifying things to worry about causing the end of humanity than just CRISPR.

Also, what are we doing to help the Mars overpopulation problem?

Trend #3: IBM Watson is not a great bartender.

I got a little impatient with the line for an AI-recommended beer at the IBM activation and wasn’t blown away by the resulting selection. Taste was based on asking about your favorite season for drinking beer (summer), favorite berry (cranberry), and favorite dessert (tiramisu). Maybe I threw it off by picking what it classed as a bitter dessert. Bitterness is not something I look for in my beer. Results were picked from a pool of only six local beers.

Earlier I’d attended Mythbusters: How IBM Watson “Really” Works, presented by IBM CTO and certifiable futurist with long silver hair, Rob High. Watson when explained sounds almost boring, but I think that means it’s working, rather than some futuristic moonshot. Any sufficiently commercialized technology is indistinguishable from a chatbot. Though High wants you to know your chatbots suck and aren’t nearly as cool as Watson. High claimed by the end of 2018 about a billion people will be interacting with Watson applications. He also demoed some cool expressive text to speech engines where computer speech can have more human emotion and emphasis to better let you know form responses really do pretend to care about your insignificant problem.

Trend #4: Chatbots have arrived and they are ready to misinterpret your query that a simple search would’ve answered and offer to start a game of tic tac toe instead.

I was a little surprised by the amount of chatbot panels, but I guess with Grumpy Cat out of the picture this year we had to talk about something. One of the selling points given in Bot Best Practices was not requiring new app installations because they already live inside the apps users are engaging with. People really hate installing apps now.

The panel shared a statistic showing that monthly active users for the top four social networks have been surpassed by users for the top four messaging apps, which is why you should check out Sequel Bot Platform and start building your own disappointing brand experience today.

Trend #5: JavaScript! Am I right?

We’ve made JavaScript great again, but maybe it was already great to begin with? Did you know that JavaScript is even used in space? I wonder how many people have already been killed by bad JS. Is there a JavaScript framework called bad.js yet? I bet you can make some cool chatbots with JavaScript.

“HTML, JavaScript and CSS are the best parts of nobody’s day.” –Alex Russell

Google’s pushing Progressive Web Apps (PWA) with an offline first approach, which is really great for the 60% of mobile traffic that’s stuck on 2G using underpowered devices. Chrome software engineer Alex Russell’s Building Offline-First Progressive Web Apps was probably my favorite and most informative session. Now if only Safari would implement service workers.

Did you know you can even use JS to make your own VR experiences now?

Trend #6: Virtual/Augmented/Mixed Reality has arrived and it’s ready to sell you a brand experience.

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” –William Gibson

Gibson wasn’t at SXSW but VR/AR/MR certainly was. I saw people using Gear VR headsets everywhere, including a Starbucks, which didn’t even feel that weird. Despite V/A/MR’s ubiquity, the only demo I had was a subpar experience with Microsoft’s HoloLens at the National Geographic space.

The two Einstein-themed experiences could’ve been better suited to straight up VR. Nothing was gained by the mixed reality approach. The field of view in the HoloLens really is tiny, and the headset did not play well with my glasses. I struggled to tap a button using the mixed reality interface, which made me feel really old and uncool.

“Virtual experiences are real.” #queervr

NatGeo also had an augmented reality experience where you walked past a series of photographs on a wall while holding a tablet that brought the images to life. Despite being much simpler technology, it inspired more wonder than the HoloLens. Something was actually changing in the real world on the screen, whereas there was a disconnect with the HoloLens.

“Discussing wearables is more interesting than wearables” — Bruce Sterling

Trend #7: Apps, 3D Printing, drones, and Google Glass are dead.

In panel after panel people were talking about how no one wants to install your app. What they want is to hold their s̶u̶n̶g̶l̶a̶s̶s̶e̶s̶ Snap Spectacles™above their head to Snapchat Kesha, which is not to disparage Kesha, because she is fucking awesome. Maybe I missed it, but drones, 3d printing, and even voice assistants liked Alexa seemed underrepresented.

“Honestly, secretly, my goal is to live on
an island full of cats. …everything naked and sagging.”–Kesha

In conclusion…

Britney says everyone has been doing virtual reality & chatbots

There are always going to be new technologies and the next big thing, which will inevitably end up as yesterday’s news. Start simple and keep it stupid. Work towards your MVP (minimum viable product—SXSW fucking loves this acronym) whether it’s starting your first podcast, launching a product, coding your first PWA, or burdening the world with your first chatbot. Beware feature and mission creep and trying to do everything. Stay curious and keep learning.

“I don’t feel curious about anything except why I’m such a fraud.” –PJ Vogt of Reply All on creative block

Also ask if you really want to do it alone. No one’s a better editor than literally anyone besides yourself.

Some bonus parting notes:

  • AI will improve but won’t replace GUI
  • Switch your websites to HTTPS, yesterday
  • Learn React or something
  • Be upset you weren’t the first to think of Freddy vs. JSON
  • Start a podcast, but only if you can commit to six episodes and write a list of 30 episode titles
  • Join the Neo-Luddite movement while there’s still time! Smash some Snap Spectacles! Start that class warfare early.

“The day I turned 30 I was on safari and saw two lions having sex and thought, ‘my thirties are gonna be dope.’” –the one, the only Kesha

Topher McCulloch is a designer/developer () who’s attended SXSW five times and still feels just as dead on the inside as he did the very first time. This article originally appeared on Medium, where you should heart it.


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