2014 represents the 20th anniversary of SXSW Interactive. Even at the ripe age of 20, the show is still experiencing growing pains…in a good way.
“In 2014, SXSW was a festival of digital camaraderie, a place where geeks, the Internet famous, celebrities, and those who are curious or who want to learn gather to celebrate and share in who they are and who they want to be.” – Brian Solis.
Brian Solis is one of the preeminent thought leaders in marketing and disruptive technologies in the world, a long time SXSW attendee, and the person, along with Stephanie Agresta, in charge of the social media lounge at SXSW. While at the festival, I was able to catch-up with Brian in between his public appearances and talk to him about his experience at SXSW this year.
When I asked for his thoughts on the show, Brian said that overall it was an incredible experience. In addition to all he does during SXSW, he also serves as an advising friend to the organizers of Interactive and also the new V2V event series in Las Vegas each August.
Brian did share a bit of disappointment around the missing buzz of technology at this years show. “It was disappointing from the perspective of that new technology you had to have,” he said. “For the second year in a row, there has not been that one thing that broke through. Maybe this is not the place to launch your app any more. Brands now dominate the scene with guerilla marketing, glitz, parties, giveaways, and celebrity appearances grabbing all the attention.”
A few years ago, SXSW wanted to be a bigger and more exciting event, and that has certainly come true. However, when these types of events grow up, they continue to evolve. With big brands getting so much attention, and spending big bucks to do so, small start-ups are eclipsed by brand noise and unfortunately no longer stand a chance.
Now, four years in a row, the stand-out star at the show was social media. It has become somewhat stale, because most everyone seems to be there to teach and very few to learn. The show is now much more about networking and the people than the launch of new apps. It might be time for organizers to recognize that and change the shape and nature of the show. SXSW is not alone in this trend however; people complain that the same happens with all events, and they are saying the same about Burning Man and TED.
Technology and Innovation: SXSWi Product Standouts
On the technology front, there was certainly plenty to see. The Hilton, among other pop places around Austin, housed up and coming start-ups. Solis did take the time to seek out what’s hot and new.
Some items that stood out to Brian were Lightwave, a wearable device that sends biometric data from event goers to artists in real-time allowing events to adapt in real-time for different audiences. This is part of a new theme of experiential entertainment that will require, as Brian calls it, “experience architecture” to take data and turn it into something more personal and meaningful to users. At the same time, wearable devices were prominent throughout SXSW with some providing data to enable what Brian feared as “marketing manipulation,” which would allow marketers to personalize campaigns not necessarily experiences.
Solis also appreciated Breathometer, a novel product that in its own way could prevent tragedies like the one that struck SXSW this year, when a suspected drunk driver barreled through a crowd of people killing two event goers and injuring dozens more. Breathometer is a small key-chain sized device that connects to the iPhone allowing people to blow into it and better understand an approximation of the blood alcohol content. The app then shares not only what level they blew, but it also helps them understand how long it will be until they are legally able to drive.
Another highlight of the showcase for Brian was spending time with Zach Ware, CEO of Project 100, a spinoff of the innovative Downtown Project in Las Vegas led by Zappos’ Tony Hsieh, focused in a disruptive new model for inner city transportation. Ware and Solis hosted an official discussion on stage as part of a special V2V showcase within SXSW. To him, the real story is that everything is ripe for disruption. If transportation can be reinvented for citizens by an outside group, for profit, and entrepreneurial urban planning can breathe new life into a city, everything can be re-imagined. The prospect of creative disruption and the vision of entrepreneurs that see all those possibilities is the real story of SXSW. You might not read about it, but you can certainly find it…just not just in line at the dozens of brand parties competing for attention.
What’s Next For SXSWi?
“SXSW is a real world human network and it brings together people who share interests, creating a physical interest graph,” Brian said. “When you think about it, SXSW is the only event that has and will become home to this unique, connected tribe once a year. The rest of the year, they’ll connect on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and whatever’s et al. If anything, it’ll be someone from this group that creates the next big thing.”