by andre briggs

Thoughts and Observations of SXSW Interactive 2013 ✈

Back in March ago I attended SXSW Interactive in Austin, TX for the 2nd time. Many of the sessions occurred at the Austin Convention Center or surrounding hotels in downtown Austin. Here is a list of some of the sessions and panels that I attended:

Welcome to Austin

Designing Habits: From Big Data to Small Changes

The premise of this talk was to recognize the democratization of health data via wearable computing. There were many conversation about being able to help users make big changes in their health based on upon seemingly small changes to their lifestyle. These small changes are recommended by looking at crowd sourced self-collected data. Apparently sensors to track movement are pretty cheap these days and there are several start-ups attempting to capitalize on the personal health industry. The commercial successes of the Nike FuelBand and Fit Bit products are seen as indicators of the demand. The panel included the CEO of an online health tracker service called Basis Science Inc. and a Stanford University Healthcare Design Strategist. Personally I find this field and the use of data very promising.

On the other hand I did feel that this session abused the buzzword “Big Data” to garner interest. The panelist with the Healthcare design strategist title didn’t add anything to the talk. The VC dude was just talking for the sake of talking. Since SXSW has many would be entrepreneurs attending I guess you always get interest in your panel if there is someone there who may be willing to fund your idea….

Is Your Digital Ready for the Minority Majority?

This session was led by Google’s Head of Industry, Kevin Hartman. The session brought awareness to the cultural shift that has been building in the US for several decades. Hartman’s point was that several forward-thinking companies and the advertisers that represent them fail to account the new reality. This can limit their ability to genuinely connect with contemporary American consumers. I was thinking if this could be measured in some way or if Google has don’t some work to see how this effects online campaigns. Unfortunately this was not shared.

After contemplating this talk since I was in Austin I do wonder how advertising will change when the demographics of the US noticeably change. Will we continue to see Caucasians in certain roles. Will there be a non European Uncle Sam (link****)? Is there a model based on context, age, gender, and ethnic background that will only show consumers ads with people that represent their own race? Does this yield more conversions? So many questions, so few answers.  

Elon Musk Keynote

Elon Musk is the cofounder of PayPal, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and Chairman of Solar City. The keynote had much talk about this company SpaceX. Musk made the compelling point that all other forms of transportation we have are re-usable (i.e. cars, trains, airplanes, etc) yet rockets for space travel are one time use. His company is trying to change that. Right now NASA is largest client and they have dozens of successful launches right now. Just about all the software in SpaceX is Linux based. This was a great listen.

Since Austin TSLA is trading at record levels and has announced profitability. SpaceX’s Grasshopper has reached new heights. Musk might be the most interesting entrepreneur right now.  

The Future of Location: From Social to Utility

This was a Q&A where tech blogger Anil Dash questioned Foursquare CEO/Founder Dennis Crowley. If you haven’t heard of Foursquare, it’s a social app that is becoming increasingly important in the context of location. Crowley wants to position Foursquare between the map tiles and the users to create a personal map for every user. Right now Foursquare’s API is used by tens of thousands of 3rd party services, not limited to Instagram and Twitter. Foursquare wants to be the location layer of the internet. By the end of the session I was convinced that location should be thought of during any internet activity. P.S. I had a chance to speak with the CEO/founder Dennis Crowley for 2 minutes later in the day at another event. He stated that of his 150 person company and there are three times as many data scientists than software developers.  

Julie Uhrman & Josh Topolsky Keynote

Ouya is a Kickstarter financed Android OS based video game system that plans to ship later this year. Much of this talk was simply and Q & A between Topolsky and the Ouya CEO, Julie Uhrman. It’s interesting to see how popular Android has become. Unfortunately we all now know that Ouya is a flop.

How AI Is Enhancing the User Experience

This talk had members and former members of SRI (Stanford Research Institute) International. SRI is the organization that created the original Siri app that Apple later bought and integrated into iOS. The panelists included Nadav Gur, a co-founder & CEO of Desti travel search and planning app. Raj Singh the founder of Tempo AI, a smart calendar app was also present. Both companies are offshoots of SRI. This was quite an interesting talk. All the panelists had some inside knowledge on Siri and the challenges to create these knowledge verticals. The reason both of the offshoot apps focus on specific areas (calendar and travel) is because “AI” works in a model that is too constrained to be everything to everyone. There was talk of pull based (open intent) versus push based assistance and the complexities involved. The push model can be too noisy. How can one balance the context versus the noise? The session began with the answering the question of “What is AI?”  

Big Data Meet Up

The description of this event claimed it was a get together “with other Big Data professionals for an hour of brainstorming, idea-building, networking, friend-making and career-enhancement.” Unfortunately I didn’t find this too useful. It was poorly organized. I met some people from Rdio (music streaming service), Apple, Google, and several smaller companies. The attendees broke themselves into groups by topic. The “Marketing” group was the largest by far.  

The End of Reality: The New Augmented Reality

This session was presented by Alex Olwal, a researcher from the MIT Media Lab and a MIT Media Lab alumni named Jamie Zigelbaum. This sessions covered some exciting use cases of augmented reality. For instance in industrial hardware design and medical devices. The ethics of augmented reality were also discussed with the rising popularity of devices like Google Glass. Here is a link to the slide presentation that was used during the session.  


Other Events:

Viceland DRONES

Vice Magazine put on a multi-day event to promote the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion and to raise awareness of drones. It was kinda of a brilliant cross marketing effort that was relevant to SWSXi goers.


There were many examples of 3D Printing here. It seems like 3D printers are becoming cheap enough for small creative firms to invest into. I think it will be a while before you see any of this in people’s homes.

The MIT Media Lab also a handful of sessions here. All around there were handfuls of gadgets and strange products that were built by self-titled “hackers”.

General Thoughts

  • There was a Health data track. Since the Healthcare industry isn’t the most welcoming, start-ups are taking matters into their own hands and making the Healthcare industry come to them.
  • There was a lot of excitement about Google Glass and developing applications for it. Wearable computing is a hot topic.
  • Big data had its own track as well but I got the sense that people still don’t understand what it is. Everyone seems to have their own definition. I’ve realized how’s much online advertising has pushed the big data stuff forward though. Much of what gets talked about we are already doing.
  • SXSW needs to do a better job at anticipating popular sessions. I really wanted to go to Big Data Democracy: The Rise of Analytics but the session announced that there was no more space 20 min before it started. Perhaps I should have found the optimal session schedule that took into account all the serendipitous events that occur at SSXSWi but that takes the fun out of it.
  • The SXSW Panel Picker process has been gamed. The process is basically similar to Bruce Feirstein’s TED-O-MATIC ( Perhaps panels should submit a trailer or something to to give a taste of what the discussion will be about beyond the text description.
  • In an effort to appeal to a broad range of people there are hardly any sessions that take deep dives into a topic. Panels usually have a several non-technical people consisting of tech bloggers, VC’s and “researchers”. The panels that did have the technical people who actually create the shit were much more useful to me.

Worst Session Award

The most useful session I attended was How to Be Interesting by cartoonist & claptrappist Jessica Hagy. Her talk was literally 5 mins then she open the rest of the time up to questions. In those 5 minutes absolutely nothing that was talk about had anything to do with the title of the session. I stood on the outside of the packed conference room feeling completely hoodwinked. I turned to the guy next to me and said “Is that it?” he chuckled and I left. Maybe I just had too high hopes for this. If you’re going to have a click bait title for your session at least try to live up to it. This was 10 mins of my life I can’t get back. Shame on you Jessica Hagy, shame on you!

My Personal Do Better Next Time

Business cards. This year I did better than last with the business cards. I probably was able to add over %60 of the business cards I got to LinkedIn. I still haven’t really converted this things into actionable things yet. Note to self: Create personal business cards not affiliated to the company you work for.


This was my 2nd time at SXSW Interactive. It’s an amazing place with many like-minded people. My advice is to research the panels and talks that sounds interesting before going. On the other hand I found many interesting talks by simply conversing with other SXSW goers. If there is a session that is particularly interesting to you make sure to arrive early. Especially if the panel is not held in the Austin Convention Center. There were a few sessions I missed out on due to being at maximum venue capacity.

This year I felt I met less developers. Anything tech event that is greater than 20 people gets taken over by marketing people using the event as a vacation or dating pool.

Sometimes the topics are so dumbed down that you read one article about the subject on a blog you would leave with more knowledge. The expectation to set at SXSW Interactive is the priceless networking opportunities.

Now this doesn’t mean SXSWi is devoid of truly technical sessions. There are hackathons but I wouldn’t spend my time in a room off site of downtown Austin all day just to get your programming rocks off. Such activities defeat the purpose of networking.