South by Southwest (SXSW) is a beast of an event. For two weeks in March every year, everyone who is someone in Entertainment, Art, Trade, Computing or Tech flocks to Austin, Texas to rub shoulders and show off what they’ve been working on.
The conference is famous for its view towards the future, or more colloquially for ‘innovation’, and often is the catalyst for many emerging trends that are on the cusp of going mainstream. So, what did we see this year that got us all excited?
Abby, the AI conference guide
Image by Aaron Rogosin & SXSW
In true, unapologetic SXSW fashion, all visitors were graced with artificial intelligence right off the bat, with the return of the helpful chatbot Abby. A convenient guide to the conference, Abby was available on Facebook Messenger or SXSW’s own app, where it provided schedule information, keynote recommendations and answered any questions, all upon request.
With the aid of ‘Natural Language Processing’, a clever machine-learning tool that learns to accurately replicate human discussion, Abby’s responses were conversational, friendly and fun – just what you’d (hopefully) get from a real tour guide.
Given the success of this SXSW visitor-favourite, expect to see more of these virtual concierges in the not-too-distant future.
Building an intelligent future
There were a whole host of sessions on this. Trusted trailblazers in AI, connectivity and the Internet of Things delivered cutting-edge keynotes on industry-changing technologies and the growth of all-things Smart.
Cassie Kozyrkov, Chief Decision Scientist at Google, broke down the possible paths artificial intelligence could pave in her presentation How to Build a Brighter AI Future. She spoke about the dangers of bias in algorithms, where a lack of diversity at the development stage can lead to prejudiced results, but “if we have a diversity and richness of perspectives, someone might call out some ways in which [it] is a little too selective.”
Sometimes our excitement around new tech can make us gloss over the moral conundrum it causes, so SXSW is often an important platform for these discussions to be raised.
While in Want to mend the web? Equip the users, Richard Whitt of Mozilla and Maura Corbett of Glen Echo Group stressed the importance of the virtual vigilantes - those who are giving the users control of what they see and offering the right tools to protect their private info and rid of interfering adverts.
VR/AR/MR…and XR? What R you on about?
Everyone’s heard about virtual reality, especially when it comes to gaming. You may have even come across augmented reality if you dipped your toe in Pokémon Go a while back. But Mixed Reality and Cross (X) Reality are fairly new terms, which are often more focused on industry, rather than our homes.
According to Ari Roth of SXSW, XR is Now. Encompassing all the other ‘Rs’ before it, Cross Reality is all of the other technologies combined, and is expected to become the true umbrella term in the next few years, because soon we won’t need separate devices for each effect – XR will be used for it all and we’ll be able to flip between each one.
For example, at a keynote titled Immersion at scale: AR/MR will change everything, a number of XR X-perts (sorry) spoke about its integration with wearable technology like smartwatches and smart sunglasses, and how it’s expected to bleed into all areas of our lives, professional and casual.
The changes we’ll see were touched upon during How VR and AR change the way we express ourselves, led by a load of seasoned wearable tech experts, where we got to see how these devices are expected to shape the way we communicate with one another and develop creative projects.
The days when we can instantly beam ourselves to another room thousands of miles away for a simple catch-up are almost upon us, and XR will be our vehicle there.
The future workplace
We spend most of the day there, most of the week. So it shouldn’t go ignored when considering the changes new technologies are bringing to our lives – they’re coming to our desks too.
As part of Transforming the Workplace through Remote Work, we saw that working outside of the office has gone up by 115% over the last ten years. Remote Year’s Greg Caplan thinks that “9 to 5 is built on a relationship of mistrust”, where if workers are simply judged on how long they spend in the office, the focus won’t be on the actual output. Remote working, therefore, helps to give a more accurate view of their performance.
But businesses seem to be changing on a larger scale too. Author and creator of Lean Canvas, Ash Maurya, mentioned in Continuous Innovation: Outlearn your Competition that the goal for businesses is no longer just to produce, produce and produce: “In the old world, when you got the product wrong you had a failed project. […] Today, if a company fails to deliver on customer needs or wants repeatedly, you don’t just get a failed project, you get a failed business model.”
Whether it be smart working, better colleague inclusion or an adjustment in what results people want, the environment is already shifting…but an overhaul might be on the horizon.
As always, there was certainly a lot going on at SXSW this year, but these small snippets only go to show how forward-thinking some industry leaders are. For more of an overview of the event, see SXSW’s roundup. The future is bright.