News & Views

SXSW 2016: Five Bigger-Than-Texas Ideas

by Contagious Team

We did it. We survived another SXSW, in the heat of Austin, Texas. We’re stuffed full of tacos as well as new ideas – implanted in our brains through panels, experiences and late-night conversations with some of the best in the business.

Before we share our takeaways from this year’s iteration of SXSW, a quick note. Anyone who tells you they have the definitive or comprehensive take on what transpired is lying to you. More than ever, the festival is a monstrous, sprawling event, comprising scientific talks, brand activations, concerts, product launches, street teams and more. Even a team of twenty, dispatched to every talk they could in the convention center and hotel halls, would struggle to fully report on the goings on. So in lieu of a sweeping synopsis, we’ll share our personal south-by-superlatives of the best things we came into contact with in Texas.


Hottest New Topic: Autonomous Vehicles

Though there was no huge product launch this year – compared to last year when Meerkat was all the rage – but there was a topic on everyone’s lips more than in the past: self-driving cars. More than a dozen different panels touched on or focused on autonomous transportation and the repercussions that its widespread adoption could have on the globe. Continental Intelligent Transportation Systems CEO, Seval Oz, observed that the theme has gone ‘from science fiction to reality in a very short amount of time – faster than anyone ever imagined’ and will have wide-ranging repercussions, from manufacturing to advertising to the very structure of our transportation infrastructure.

Meanwhile in a panel titled ‘Autonomous Vehicles and the American City’, Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the Los Angeles Department Of Transportation and Reilly Brennan, executive director of the Revs Automotive Research Program at Stanford University tickled brains with broader implications of autonomous transportation. The duo covered a broad swathe of topics related to urbanism and automation, from the maturity of the offering (Brennan likened vehicles to having a 10-year-old’s reading level) to regulation to broader structural concepts like parking and the effect on short-haul flights. Reynolds, regarding the latter, cast one part of the future: ‘dormant private vehicles’.

Where do brands sit? Potentially shotgun. ‘Vehicles are living room environments that will be more occupied by brands and content than manufacturers and suppliers,’ Brennan surmised. When can we expect autonomous vehicles in the wild? ‘I would argue that in limited, closed environments you’ll see autonomous vehicles on the streets in the next twelve months,’ he said.

We’re still in the early days of autonomous vehicles, to be sure, and a lot of this year’s panels debated what might transpire rather than what will transpire, but it was enough to get us excited about the potential impacts of self-driving buggies.


Most Inspiring Talk: David Rees

The best talk we saw this year was not in the Austin Convention Center. Nor did it centre on the transformative powers of technology. Instead, the honor belongs to a hilarious, rambling talk given by David Rees in the #Analog by American Greetings space.

Speaking in a storefront converted into a shrine to the analog – from physical postcards to vinyl records, Rees dissected his journey from online political cartoonist to absurdist pencil sharpener (seriously, look him up). Along the way, he talked about his most recent trip across the country to promote his television show, Going Deep, which sought to create social media offline in old school ways. He challenged the audience to throw their phones off of a bridge (metaphorically, we think), and inspired the gathered crowd to spend a little more time learning and doing, rather than stressing out over Facebook likes and Retweet counts. Oh, and we learned more than we ever thought we would about pencils.


Best Party: Questlove at the Safehouse

We had the good fortune to act as media partner to Rood Studios’ Safehouse, sponsored by Don Julio tequila, and as such enjoy an epic Tumblr afterparty DJed by The Roots drummer and Tonight Show bandleader Questlove. After attending strikeouts where brands tried to cram as many people as possible into a parking lot, or only let in their suited executives, it turns out a good old-fashioned house-rockin’ was pretty popular with folks. And it helped that the house had a room fitted out with dozens of surveillance cameras and monitors and walls covered with fake fur, and a room piled high with Casper mattresses, and plenty of delicious tequila all in addition to Quest giving a five-hour retrospective of tunes that have made people dance for the last 60-something years.

We’d feel weird touting a party we were involved in as the best at SXSW, except that Questlove himself called it ‘the best party I've ever done in my life’. Not too shabby, good job everybody.


Biggest Step Forward: VR/AR

It’s no secret that VR has been poised on the cusp of mainstream adoption for some time now. In fact, in our SXSW write-up last year, we wrote: ‘Dozens of VR-centric panels talked excitedly about the future of immersive experiences, but, as always, the refrain remains: stay tuned.’ This year, headsets were everywhere. From a Samsung experience developed with Six Flags that convincingly simulated a roller coaster, to a McDonald’s experience that allowed people to paint inside a Happy Meal, to a dedicated space for the New York Times’ NYTVR division, it was impossible to avoid VR.

And the conversation is advancing past VR as well, with many marketers understanding that augmented reality – or mixed reality – may offer more opportunity to interact with people on a regular, non-immersion-branded basis as they go about tasks like DIY projects or cooking.

But, don’t take our word for it. Check out this gentleman, immersed in whatever was going on in his headset over an internationally renowned musical artist djing for 50 people in the very next room.


Best Platform To Document 4 Days on 3 Hours of Sleep a Night: Snapchat

And yes, while there was no big concentrated app push, it seemed like Snapchat was ubiquitous. Brands and publishers enlisted heavy-hitting snappers (like former Now Next Why speaker Maritza Lerman Yoes) to chronicle their Austin adventures. Snapchat itself offered custom geofilters from brands like Spotify and Samsung and more. And many a middle-aged marketing manager or agency bod found the din of the festival a safe enough space to slink slowly down the deep, dank tunnel of snaps toward being confident enough to rock those super cool crazy lenses.


Stay tuned for the full report featured in our Contagious session, ‘Niche to Movement to Mainstream: How Cultures Grow.’ It’ll drop next week. Thanks very much to everyone who came out, virtually or physically, to support the session.

Header image by Paul Hudson licensed via Creative Commons.