A lot of conferences out there. Leave it to the marketing team behind them to make you feel like theirs is “the one.” By a large margin, the SXSW Interactive conference, which preludes the SXSW Music festival, is the best if you’re looking for the latest and greatest in how new technology, design thinking, and interactive tools and strategies can merge with marketing to make for those “aha” consumer experiences. It is the truest and purest conference out there for what is new and what really matters. Each time I go, I come back with a wealth of new partnerships, concepts, and skills that you can’t get anywhere else.
It happens in Austin each March. Thousands of innovators flock to the blue dot of Texas to share and learn. So I’m happy to bring out my highlights, which once again, feature what is happening the augmented reality and virtual reality, with some artificial intelligence. These elements, to me, are the trifecta of interactive marketing and the future of what people will expect from “brands.” Let’s define each in a way that makes better sense:
Virtual reality VR: you’re immersed in a digitally conceived world and all you can see and/or hear is that world. Ready Player One, anyone? Generally requires a headset for th the best experience. (Samsung Gear, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift). Here’s a PC Mag list of the best you can get.
Augmented reality AR: you’re seeing or hearing your real world but see and/or hear virtual layers on top of it. You know, like Google Glass (which was an excellent idea and we are living backwards because of the decision to shoot it down). Here are a few headsets you can consider via Tom’s Guide.
Artificial intelligence AI: non-living things with brains of their own that can make sapient and/or salient decisions. This has very little to do with virtual or augmented reality, for now, but you’ll hear a lot about it at conferences. And just to be parallel, here’s Business Insider’s list of the best chat bots you can talk to (lol),
Bose, I Suppose?
The best experience at SXSW Interactive this year was provided by Bose. They put together a prototype of their sound-based augmented reality headset. It’s like your daily life but narrated. One representative there on the Rainey St location for this experience claimed that Bose engineers saw the potential of Google Glass but also why it failed. So, they wanted to make something that people trusted was only about audio, as opposed to the Google Glass experience which left people wondering if those wearing it were slowly undressing them, virtually. Or recording them too.
The Bose AR concept let people like me try on the sound AR eyewear and be led through an example. In it, you walk down a street (video all recorded, you’re watching this on a tablet filmed as if from your perspective – remember, it’s just a simulation / prototype. The eyewear ). Eventually a voice starts to narrate factoids about the things you are looking at.
A Bose technician stands near you, guiding you in this experience and asking questions. I remember that as I went down the street, the eyewear’s speakers would give me updates on things around me, such as names of restaurants/coffee shops and what their Yelp ratings were. Thus, yes, it has movement sensors that can track where your head is pointed and how it is angled, and relies on GPS too for how to determine what it is your eyes are actually seeing.
The discussions afterward with available Bose representatives were far more interesting. How could this sound AR-enabled eyewear be used to safely, and more importantly, calmly, guide people in the event of a natural disaster? Would it be possible for the eyewear to massage your temples (imagine that)? Measure the air quality around you? Low-hanging fruit may be entertainment, but we need our technology to help us. I handed out a lot of business cards in this tent, let’s see what comes of it. And if you’re a Bose public relations person reading through blog article, wow I’m pressed I made it into the search, and let’s please chat.
See a Black Hole. Now, Become a Black Hole.
Out of the all things you could experience in the SXSW VR Cinema room (remember your acronyms), the artist Eliza McNitt’s “Black Hole” adventure called Spheres was by far the most well developed. When I lifted off the VR headset at the end, I felt so calm, like I just experienced a beautiful, transcendent spa in the middle of a galaxy far, far away. She takes you through what it’s like to see a black hole work, as Jessica Chastain narrates in a whispery, crispy, soft voice and a ethereal soundtrack cushions your aural senses.
But it’s not just entertainment. Apparently the National Science Foundation NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA gave some funding to this. When I talked to Eliza afterward, she mentioned that she interviewed countless scientists and worked with them to make sure the facts were en pointe. It rang true. And it proved by STEAM is the new STEM.
Design Thinking (and Doing… But Also Researching).
Went to several design thinking sessions offered by General Assembly and some led by a “soloist”, shall we say (Berinado’s #GoodCharts session was illuminating). It’s refreshing to hear other professionals validate the user’s point of view and the need for data-driven products. In summary, when designing a new product, here are the steps:
- Empathize / identify a want / need
- Do some background research, observe
- Ideate and brainstorm
- Survey people’s perspectives
- Create some prototypes and betas
- Work with people to test them (survey again)
- Refine product and get expert input
- Launch – eat, pray, love
Good design follows the initial steps really well, but great design understands the need for public perspectives and data for product interactions. The takeaway: work with your customer to develop what they want, not what you think they might want.
Other Sorta Shiny Stuff
YouTube had a lackluster hodgepodge of interactive video experiences based on fairy tales. Ad agencies had to pick a story and create a 5, 15, and 30 second version of the fairy tale but incorporate some kind of interactivity with the video. It felt like something trying to spin itself as emergent when this kind of technology has been around for awhile, so thus one could conclude the development time was minimal or something. Better luck next year, YouTube.
Bernie Sanders did a Q&A with Jake Tapper. It was cool…. we all felt the Bern.
ANA hosted a lounge party where their holographic simulation of your body could be watched by others. It was actually pretty cool. Let’s see if one of Asia’s largest airlines can find ways to apply this technology further. Also, shout-out to the mysterious blue, alcoholic slushy drink.
Sprechen sie Deutch? German Haus hosted some interesting conversations and sessions. If you wanted to partner with some designers and developers who were German or Germany-adjacent, it wasn’t a bad place stop. Don’t forget – Germany is the leading power in the EU, with a rich, academic and professional history in artistic and technological innovation.
The “#SocialGood” panel was C+. A lot better was Josephine Goube’s talk on her company Techfugees, which relies on volunteer support that provides access to information to refugees (hence the portmanteau). Very telling stories about Syrian working at corner stores in France, even though they are great medical and legal minds – but they just don’t know how to acclimate. The processes, forms, etc… language barrier or not, French bureaucracy is the epitome of red tape.
So What’s Next?
That’s a good question. For me, it’s hearing the louder, more persistent call of AR, VR, and AI. We’re already developing an AI chat bot to be deployed on one of our outreach websites. Starting to sketch ideas for compelling AR and VR experiences with some minds in the field. Just really hearing the “A” in STEAM.
Is it true that VR is the only experience guaranteed to imprint your mind?