SXSW and the Art of Gonzo Conferencing
SXSW Interactive can be a bewildering experience even for the hardened conferencer. You’ve got to throw yourself in headfirst. Become part of the story. That is unquestionable. But you also need a survival plan otherwise SXSW will chew you up and spit you out. You’ll be left quivering on an Austin sidewalk with nothing but your lanyard and a vacant stare to prove you were even there.
It won’t be the seemingly infinite content sessions, the web-like sprawl of SXSW venues or even the mind-bending scheduling clashes that will bake your noodle, but rather a toxic concoction of bars, bourbon, random encounters and existential hangovers that will ultimately be your downfall.
For my part, I urge you to avoid anything even vaguely related to your day job. Why come all the way to Austin to brush up on SEO or discover the latest social media metrics? Surely SXSW is all about the weird and wonderful? It’s about being challenged and inspired. It’s about going rogue and getting a fresh perspective on our little world.
‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’
SXSW’s robot petting zoo was home to virtually every kind of artificial intelligence imaginable. These included the BlabDroid, a kind of tiny cardboard version of WALL-E designed for documentary filmmakers. The idea is you can drive it up to unsuspecting people on the street and get them to answer personal questions on the basis that they feel more comfortable talking to an inanimate object. There was also the Ozobot, which has been created to introduce children to programming; and Nikko, a creepy-as-fuck flying monkey drone created to access areas like disaster zones that people can’t get to. The highlight for me though was ‘Would you Torture a Robot’, a session in which Richard Fisher, deputy editor of BBC Future, explored which kinds of robots we’d be comfortable battering to death with a hammer.
‘I am a cybernetic organism. Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton’
Double amputee and head of the Biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab Hugh Herr believes there is no such thing as broken people only broken technology. He explained that by improving the ‘bad design’ of today’s artificial limbs and using technology to ‘augment’ the human body we can bring an end to disability. Herr has already designed a pair of bionic legs that allow him to free-climb better than any able-bodied person and he is currently working on a robotic exoskeleton that will enable human beings to do amazing things. Crucially, once we are able to manipulate biology as much as technology, Herr’s work will allow us to develop biomechanic body parts and eventually regenerative body parts.
‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”
Talking cars, self-driving cars, cars that make the tea – pretty much every kind of ‘next-generation’ car was being touted at SXSW this year. For me it was Aeromobil’s long-awaited flying car that stole the show. The company’s co-founder and CEO Juraj Vaculik outlined the impact flying cars could have on our future after announcing that the ‘Flying Roadster’ could be available as early as 2017. With a range of 430 miles, Vaculik’s Roadster can reach a top speed of 100mph on the road and 124mph in the air, making it perfect for achieving that all-important element of surprise in a high-speed chase scenario. It’s even got an in-built parachute just in case you get stitched up again by Dave at Kwik-Fit. Of course flying cars are decades away from becoming mainstream but their impact will be transformative. They could help save billions in infrastructure costs, create more efficient links between towns and revolutionise the way we design our cities.
‘Open the pod bay doors, HAL’
We all love a few good holiday pics don’t we? But imagine those pics weren’t taken by your mate Sharon, but by an astronaut. And they’re not of a blurry Benidorm nightclub, but of the earth from space. In what was a standout SXSW session, American astronaut Reid Wiseman presented a mind-blowing selection of photos and videos taken during the six weeks he spent aboard the International Space Station. Unsurprisingly, you can get some pretty good snaps when you’re flying 250 miles above the planet at 17,500mph. But Wiseman didn’t just capture images of majestic sunrises and distant cityscapes. He chronicled everyday life on board the space station complete with footage of the astronauts dicking around in zero gravity.
‘Rodeo’s not all about big boys on bulls’
As great as the SXSW Interactive content program is, it’s impossible to get the complete Austin experience without getting away from the conference halls, and I don’t just mean eating BBQ ribs or watching live music on 6th Street. Austin is a wonderfully weird place and to become a true gonzo conferencer you have to go off the grid. This year, this meant paying a visit to the Austin Rodeo, a bizarre and excellent experience complete with fun fair, freak show and frenzied bull. However, the highlight was undoubtedly Mutton Bustin’, a strange and inexplicable phenomenon that sees pre-school kids clad in hockey masks compete to see who can hang on longest to a rampaging 180lb sheep. I urge you to Google this immediately.
Gareth Jones is Chief Brand & Content Officer at DigitasLBi