Tech Conference Review: SXSW 2016

This is the third article of a multi-series blog post about Ruby and tech conferences that @thomas_witt visited in 2016. The setting South By Southwest (@sxsw) takes place every year in Austin, TX. This year marked the 30st anniversary of this legendary event. It started as a small music festival and grew into one of the biggest festival conferences worldwide about media, tech, music and film. #SXSW2016 took place in 2016 from March 11-15 in Austin, Texas. When you hear about Texas, you might have a certain picture in your mind (which might include cowboys). That's totally not true for Austin – it's a super modern and beautiful city with lovely people. If you haven't had a chance to visit Austin yet, I'd totally recommend it. The conference SXSW is not a conference in the traditional way. It takes some time to truly understand what it is all about. It's a place where technology, interactive, marketing, music and films converge. Maybe it's more to be considered a platform. First of all, it's huge. And by huge I mean huge. Really. Huge. During SXSW, the whole city basically turns into some kind of a big event party. There's no restaurant, bar, cafe or space which isn't somehow claimed and some company throws some kind of splash there. So there's always happening something everywhere. The SXSW schedule is huge. You don't have the slightest chance to participate in everything that's going on, so actually you have to plan very much ahead. The website and the app is quite good (but overwhelming at the same time), so you'll definitely have to pick stuff you want to attend and see. It's very easy to get lost. You should also not limit your what-todo-pre-SXSW research to the official apps - browse the web, search on Twitter (#SXSW2016), even look up venues and parties on sites like Eventbrite. A lot of stuff is word of mouth, so Twitter was definitely one of the most useful tools during the conference. And: just ask people. All people I've met are super nice and helpful. The events and talks are either happening at the official venues or in (mostly company-sponsored) non-official venues. 70-80% of all events are official. If you have an official badge (which comes at a $1200 price point for the interactive part only), you'll get access to all official venues. And this is a lot. As a funny side note, I've spent nearly nothing on food and drinks because there was always some sponsored event going on. And again, there are also many company-sponsored events going on, which are often invite-only or at least require some RSVP in advance – RSVPs are often open to anybody, you just have to RSVP early enough. So start scanning through everything which is happening in advance. When you arrive, the registration is a huge hassle (yes, we're talking about an interactive conference which still doesn't manage to hand out an offline badge in a reasonable amount of time). Be early to grab your badge, there is an incredibly long line (even though you may try to be impolite and skip it). Remember to bring an official photo ID to pick it up. The talks As I already mentioned, there is a ridiculous amount of talks and workshops, and they cover a really broad range of topics. Again, you don't have a chance to attend even only 10% of them, so you got to plan ahead. For many talks you have to RSVP in advance using the official SXSW app to participate (first-come, first-served). There are many high-profile keynotes and talks which fill up very quickly, so if you want to see them, you gotta be quick and appear some time in advance (which often means a long walk from your current venue). And there are also many interesting workshops. My personal highlight was one about nudging in UX design which was run by some cool guys from IBM. Another highlight was definitely the keynote conversation with US President Barack Obama, who once again showed what a great speaker he is in an informal interview setting. Although I definitely didn't agree on all the things he said – unfortunately IMHO he didn't take a good stand in the whole iPhone FBI discussion –, he was entertaining, thoughtful and basically showed that he cares about the whole interactive industry. After all, he was the first president ever to show up at SXSW, this at least counts for something. Insights and trends recap Every SXSW is dominated by certain big trends. Here are four hot topics I've found remarkable: Virtual Reality This was evident everywhere at SXSW. Fueled by the launch announcement of Oculus Rift this year, at every corner you could read, see and experience stuff hands-on around this topic (the NASA tour of a huge rocket was particulary impressive). So everybody is sure that VR will affect our workplaces and social relationships, but still people are not sure how exactly. People talked a lot about virtual meeting rooms (VR Hangouts, anyone?), which makes sense in a way, especially with the advent of 360° camera technology. So, for example, remote workers could really be part of a meeting. All the hardware vendors are gearing up for a major push of VR/AR technologies. As strange as it may currently look to wear a headset or watch people experiencing VR, there's clear value in it. Definitely in entertainment, but also in communication and education. Social Messaging Nope, no next big thing launch at SXSW 2016. Gone are the years like 2007 when Twitter was launched or Foursquare in 2009. And everybody thought it'd be about Snapchat, but obviously Snapchat is already very much mainstream (even though some 40+ marketers didn't understand the interface and/or purpose up to now). But the big trend is the evolution of social media into social messaging. Of course, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are on the forefront of it, and the recent announcements at the f8 conference have proven the rumors on SXSW 2016 right. The messenger seems now to be now the main driver for Facebook. I experienced that interestingly myself when I was in Cape Town before, where I could actually send my Hotel an iMessage for Room Service or Concierge instead of picking up the phone. And it worked flawlessly. Finally I've got a book where I can write all my tweets down. #analogueTech #SXSW2016 #golive #twitter #oldschool pic.twitter.com/q2HNdRuKsc — Thomas Witt (@thomas_witt) March 13, 2016 This means, that the 1-to-many communication in social media will even more evolve into a 1-on-1 model. The problem is, messenger communication is maybe the most intimate form of communication via an app on our smartphones. But interestingly, it is the only app where there are no ads yet (fortunately, up to now). Obviously that will change, but the 1-on-1 communications have already been a big problem in social media in general and will become even tougher for companies in the advent of social messaging. But spoken in general: The communication landscape is changing. Once again. Wearables and Internet of Things If VR was already a hard-to-grasp topic, wearables and IoT is even more. Everybody talks about it, but what you see currently is a lot of Apple Watches and Nest sensors. According to McKinsey Research, there'll be a trillion devices connected to the Internet in 2025 (sounds like a lot of security fun). The most obvious applications came from the fitness and healthcare sector, but currently  not much of a revolution in sight. Robots, Artificial Intelligence Robots and AI are in the center of media attention since the last few years. Many other robotic and AI topics were discussed at SXSW 2016. For example, the whole Japan House was basically full of robotics technology, another highlight was Pepper at IBM, which is an emotion-sensing robot. So, again, as IoT, lots of interesting ideas, but no real breakthrough yet. Transportation Of course, Google with its self-driving cars is maybe the most prominent example of modern transportation, which also is a convergence of robots and AI. Chris Urmson, the head of the self-driving cars division at Google, gave a very entertaining and enlightening talk, which is definitely worth watching – one of my personal absolute highlights at SXSW 2016. Basically all this technology will come to us in stages. Maybe we'll first start with cars only self-driving under great weather conditions and on highways. But to see how far the technology already is – with recognizing and predicting the behavior of people walking on the street and analyzing their motions – is really mind-blowing. Socializing and meeting people SXSW is definitely not only about the talks and events, it's mostly all about meeting people. This is also something you can and should definitely plan in advance. So many of your business contacts, partners and friends might be going there, but if you want to meet people, you gotta send e-mails and post on Facebook and Twitter before the event. Otherwise you'll definitely most like don't run into each other, because the event is so huge and spans out over the whole city. Besides meeting the people you want to meet, you'll definitely meet a lot of people by accident – anybody from a VP at Google up to a hip company founder explaining to you his vision about the future. Many people you'll meet are interesting people, doing exciting stuff and often working at cool companies. So if you're rather on the shy side, SXSW might not be the best conference for you. But if you're open to meet and approach new people, you'll have hundreds of more contacts in your LinkedIn contact list and a lot more to follow on Twitter. And of course there are a lot of parties in the evening where you'll again meet people by accident. You'll at least visit 4-5 parties every evening, so pace yourself! At the events, there'll most often be live music which is again a nice mixture of interactive with music. So you see, much at SXSW is about networking. A good decision for me was to choose a kind of homebase. Fortunately, many countries do rent a whole location for the duration of the event, and so did Germany. So I hung out a lot of the time at the “German Haus” to work and meet people. I have to say that – contrary to my expectations – they've done a great job. If you're from Germany, you've automatically received a wristband, which guarantees you entry all the time. And besides providing an interesting schedule at daytime they also had an awesome nighttime program with Berlin based DJs like Robot Koch – the Berlin-based DJs were actually the only ones playing good music besides the boring mainstream stuff you'd hear at other venues, so: Berlin's electronic music scene to the rescue! So, to summarize it again, this is not a traditional conference – it's a conference, it's a festival, it's a happening, it's events, it's talks, it's networking, it's fun, it's party – it's what you make out of it. The options are overwhelming. What else? First: as silly and obvious as it may sound: Bring comfy clothes and good walking shoes. Going by car is not an option at all, there are some bike services, but most often you'll just walk. You'll really walk A LOT. Which is fun, because the weather is nice and sometimes you'll also meet people while going from one venue to another. And don't forget to drink a lot of water, stay hydrated. It's warm in Texas. Second, the whole signage in the Conference Center is terrible – Google, Google Maps and the Internet in general are your friends. There's WiFi at all official venues, no matter how remote they might be, is really excellent. I never had a single WiFi breakdown and always decent transfer rates – Kudos. But I'd always also get a local US sim as a backup. Third, It's also very important to get a centrally located hotel. I booked quite late and stayed a bit outside of the city, which means you'll pay a lot of money to Uber and you can't just work and relax in your hotel room for half an hour or refresh yourself after the day and get ready for the evening events. So get a hotel or AirBnb near to the city center. I'd also recommend – especially if you're a bit shy – to take coworkers or friends with you. It's more fun to do things together or to split up for two interesting talks taking place in parallel. I've only stayed for the interactive part, but it's funny to see how the whole crowd changes within the transition from Interactive to Film/Music. If you're only going for the Interactive part, you can basically skip the last “transition" day, there's nothing much going on there. Of course, everyone threw big parties at SXSW, but usually you should skip the biggest. Yes, everybody heard that the Mashbash at the Mashable House is great, and that results in thousands of people waiting in line. So show up very early or skip it all together. Same applies if you'd like to take a picture with Grumpy Cat. :-) Would I go again? For sure. Next time with even more pre-planning. And I might consider to get the Platinum badge to go for the whole festival, not just the Interactive part. In any case, SXSW is an event you definitely have to experience in order to “get it.” But when you “get it,” it's truly unique and great. So see you in Austin at SXSW 2017.

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