SXSW Interactive 2016: The big themes | M&M Global

SXSW Interactive 2016: The big themes

In the absence of a major break-out success like Meerkat or Foursquare, Carat’s global head of innovation JR Little reflects on the hottest topics from this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.

JR Little

In my current role, I have the privilege to visit many conferences for the sole purpose to learn and share themes or new news with colleagues and clients – it’s a nice gig.

As I write this summary on the Interactive portion of SXSW, I am sat with coffee outside the Austin Convention Centre where the festival is shifting into the film and music portion of the schedule. As nerds fly out and hipsters fly in, I would like to share what is fresh on my mind.

Data, AI, Robots and Androids – myth versus reality

While each is a unique area of expertise, they do play a role in making the other greater – AI needs data, Robots need AI, Androids need all of the above.

This overlap was prominent on stage on an hourly basis. From sessions to exhibits to meet ups, everyone was thinking about an intelligent future populated by machines in our communities, workplaces and homes. One session even questioned the role of God if AI has emotion and free will.

However, the experts pointed out that we shouldn’t let our imaginations get carried away. We are a long way off from a world populated by replicants and terminators. In fact, AI technology is still ‘autistic’ in the words of more than one speaker.

To date, AI is only as good as the data it calls upon or the inputs that trigger it, and in those areas, progress is slow. From Siri to Alexa to Cortana, voice recognition is still not much more than a key word search. Ask an AI machine a complex question like, ‘Who was president when JFK was born?’ and you will likely get pages of search results but not the answer, Woodrow Wilson.

“In terms of robotics and androids, we are far from a future where these creations are much more than an advanced Furby or Tamagotchi”

There are still many errors in connecting disparate bits of data, and in the marketing world, this will be exacerbated by the inability to match data sets and consumer IDs across differing ecosystems, for example from Facebook to Google to Twitter.

Having said that, expect the marketing community to lead in AI within single ecosystem platforms, as an error in advertising is far less threatening than an error in, say, healthcare, finance or transportation. After all, advertising isn’t brain surgery.

In terms of robotics and androids, we are far from a future where these creations are much more than an advanced Furby or Tamagotchi – unless of course you live in Japan. There you may experience robots assisting in menial tasks like offering directions, teaching a new language or cleaning a home. For more on robotics and androids, check out Hiroshi Ishiguro, and his android.  His team are creating androids and other robots to assist in everything from teaching children, keeping the elderly company and speaking at conferences on his behalf.

For marketers, AI will be the most relatable innovation. Programmatic today operates much like a very autistic AI system. As more data points come into play and differing ecosystems are connected, the ability to uniquely understand the consumer and serve appropriate and bespoke content will grow. In terms of robots, some brands are already using them as a new way to connect with consumers and serve as the basis of great content – take Dentsu, which put a robot in space.

Virtual reality is really happening

While there were only a few sessions focused on VR, the technology was ever-present. More exhibits than not seemed to use the technology as a storytelling aid – from IBM to Mashable, the headsets were everywhere.

Much of this is thanks to the efforts of Samsung: its rollercoaster experience pulled in the crowds, whereas its sponsored pedicabs with headsets made traveling around Austin surreal.

Within the start-up exhibits, many focused on the technology in one way or another – especially within production and gaming. It’s important to note that while Oculus did not have a booth at the festival, Mark Zuckerberg did announce that Oculus will come with a slew of games when it launches just weeks from now.

The market will soon prove if these devices are appealing to the masses, but for those that need to convey their ideas in small settings, it’s already a success.

Gender and diversity inclusion – actions speak louder than words

There seemed to be a concerted effort to represent men and women equally on stage. This was refreshing as, all too often, the conference circuit stages are crammed with white middle-aged men.

There were many sessions and meet ups related to gender and LGBT issues. One keynote address chaired by the US chief technology officer, titled ‘Elephant in the Valley’, explored female inequality and representation in tech.

Sadly, racial diversity did not get the focus it deserved. SXSW is still very much an event attended by a lot of white people.

Ad blockers, born from a movement

With session headlines like ‘Were Not Going to Take It – Ad Blocking and User Revolt’ and ‘Adblockageddon – How to Survive and Prosper’, the battle lines were clear.

Those that champion ad blockers, like the head of operations at Adblock Plus, are on a mission to save the consumer from a “laggy, tag-strewn, data-guzzling user experience”. Whereas agencies and publishers are determined to win back the “eyeballs and emotions of the adblock generation”.

It seems all agree that great content should make it to consumers but few will admit that their content is worth blocking. Some serious self-reflection is needed to preserve the digital-ad-serving model as we know it, as those on a blocking mission are gaining momentum.

Mobile, meh

I went to the right talks, and lined my day with mobile-themed sessions in an attempt to find the secret that could make us the best at mobile marketing. So here’s the hard reality: few are making the most of mobile’s potential.

Most, especially at SXSW, were ignoring the elephant not in the room – Facebook. Considering how present Facebook is at most other conferences like Mobile World Congress or Cannes Lions, it was odd to me that it was not more visible this week. After hearing the rallying cries from the ad blocker advocates, it had me wondering if maybe we already know how to win on mobile – make valuable content that is far from being an ad.

New news, not so much

SXSW has a history of significant launches, from Twitter to Foursquare to Meerkat, but this year saw no significant launch.

That doesn’t mean some products, all-too often apps, didn’t get a lot of attention. Aside from Samsung’s Oculus VR, Hound (a speech recognition and language understanding app that far outperforms Siri, Alexa, Cortana etc) and Slack (the popular collaboration tool of many start-ups) received praise on more than one stage.

As we enter the run-up to Cannes, be on the lookout for more VR cases, more stories challenging gender roles, increased ad blocking penetration, and a mobile landscape dominated by Facebook and Google only.


JR Little

Global director of strategy, Essence

1 Comment

Leave a Reply