Fourth Street in Austin, Tex., on Monday evening was a sea of zombies.
South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference attendees milled about, clearly exhausted, overwhelmed and slightly terrified as to what the evening held. They knew that the next seven or eight hours meant more parties, more RSVPs, more wristbands and fewer hours of precious sleep.
And there was still one more day to go.
“I don’t know where I should be,” a pedicab driver shouted to a fellow driver over the din of footsteps and chatter along the street. She drove her rickshaw-style rig in a weaving pattern around a busy intersection, seemingly oblivious to the cars trying to get through. A few blocks up, the excited din on Sixth Street began to crescendo, but with a different energy than before. The music and film attendees had begun to arrive and line up in earnest for concerts and screenings.
This is when Austin starts to become their town — one of more music, more celebrities and more parties. The futurists and technologists, the “geeks,” had one more day to celebrate.
The overwhelming nature of the conference had as much to do with the grueling schedule as with the scale of the individual products on display. This SXSW brought the message that the nature of just about everything — from manufacturing to clothing and television — is either ripe for disruption or is being disrupted already. This was a conference of robots, 3D printers, sensors and gesture-controlled devices. Mobile apps were present and many launched, but the attention of attendees and the press was more often and easily snatched away by the prospect of new hardware.
The magic of Twitter and Foursquare’s rise at past conferences wasn’t repeated this time around. Asked who was getting the most buzz, CEO Brian Wong, himself a young start-up founder, said simply: “There is no buzz. That’s the problem with South-By. After 2010, there’s no clear winner, there’s just too much noise.”
Wong, founder and CEO of Kiip (pronounced “keep”), had launched the company well before this year’s conference. This was his fourth SXSW, and the first where he was old enough to fully partake of what the conference had to offer, having been under 21 for the first three go-arounds. “It’s just not the forum for launching anymore. … Why would I want to fight with 30,000 other messages?”
That said, companies such as Makerbot and Leap Motion emerged with some of the more notable news — with MakerBot’s introduction of its 3D scanner prototype, the Digitizer, on the conference’s first full day. Leap Motion’s demonstration tent was full to the brim with people eager to try out the motion-controlled sensor, which retails for just under $80. The tent was littered with Apple desktop products, highlighting Leap’s Apple-style look. But even when talking about both companies, well-established before this year’s conference, attendees seemed more excited about the prospect of new ideas, such as the management and manipulation of biometric data, and the promise of increased integration of sensors into everyday objects, such as clothing.
Then there was the scale of the objects on display. On the lawn in front of the Long Center for the Performing Arts, somewhat away from the city center, NASA rolled out a life-sized model of its James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to be sent past the moon, a million miles from Earth in 2018. Named after James Webb, NASA’s second administrator during the first lunar landing, it is expected to be operational for 10 years. The goal of the mission — a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency — is to observe the universe’s first galaxies.
“No matter how insignificantly small we are, we can comprehend the whole universe,” said Jason Kalirai, deputy project scientist for the James Webb project. He has been working on the project for two years and has been doing research in astrophysics for a decade. “In the future, I think what this telescope will tell us is what the origin of life is.”
Closer to the ground, there were drones, such as DJI Innovation’s Phantom, a light-weight, consumer-grade craft capable of flying a mile away from its home base. DJI North America CEO Colin Guinn gave demonstrations to oohs, ahhs and a few expletives at one of the many party locales throughout the city. And, yes, even Google Glass was making its way around town, mostly on the faces of Google staff. A select few (yes, including me) got to test-drive the voice- and touch-controlled glasses.
Then, of course, there were the famous-for-being-famous participants, with “Arrested Development” stars Jeffrey Tambor and Will Arnett along with show creator Mitch Hurwitz appearing to promote the upcoming release of new episodes of the show on Netflix.
“The world has changed,” said Tambor, who said he recently taped a pilot for the satirical Web site the Onion, “and thank God for it.”
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