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Thoughts from SXSW

18 March, 2013 - Source: Else

It's not all good beer and great barbecue. By Warren Hutchinson

  • Thoughts from SXSW
    Thoughts from SXSW

And they say SXSW is losing its shine..? Surely that is a statement delivered by someone who has either a) never been or b) has been so much, that the difference between now and yesteryear is as much a reflection on the change in the technology industry as anything else.

A conference of this magnitude is bound to have changed, but I reckon the effect is just the same – SXSW is amazing and if you get the chance to go, GO. 

A week immersed in all that bleeding edge tech and opinion can only be a good thing for a designers soul, especially if you've been so busy with the day job that you haven't given yourself external stimulus and input of this nature for a while (4-5 years now, ahem). 

I feel invigorated, inspired, rest-assured, confident, positive and excited, plus a whole bunch of other stuff namely to do with over-indulging on local IPA beer and oh-so-good barbequed pulled pork and brisket. Mmmm brisket.

I came away from lectures having my mind blown. I came away from panel discussions thinking "that's nothing new" and I walked away from demos thinking "I want to make one of those".

Aside from all the personal learning, SomeOne/Else were there to do business too because we had been invited to participate in the UK Trade & Investment's 'Platinum Connection', an initiative aimed at brokering red-hot introductions between UK businesses and those attending SX. So for a few hours over two days we manned the British stand to take meetings and represent the UK design industry.


It's impossible to see everything at SX. Anyone who's been before will tell you to just "roll with it" but you do need some a plan of sorts and mine was to take in as much about artificial intelligence, internet of things, making and experience related content as I could - plus see the main keynotes each day. 

I didn't get to everything that I wanted (sometimes it's logistically impossible to get to a different venue and make the queue), but when that happened I tended to find something pretty good anyhow.

My main take-away is that less is more. Now that's probably partly because 'less is more' is one of our mantras at SomeOne/Else and I'm intuitively looking for it, but there was definitely a hint of keeping it simple and keeping it focussed whether the talks were on artificial intelligence, the internet of things, the maker revolution, designing eco-systems etc etc.

For example, I went to several talks on 'internet of things' related topics and in many ways arguments often called for less 'smart devices' and more 'dumb devices' that were controlled by the smart. Nest is an obvious example as is Jawbone's Up which in their own right it don't do that much, but connected to an app and web services, utility soars.

Mundane computing & AI

'Mundane computing' was often mentioned and it seemed an appropriate term for describing the notable AI related products on show at SXSW. 

Tempo AI (from SRI International who were behind Siri before Apple bought it) is a 'smart calendar' that makes assumptions about your context and uses your calendar as a model of your future self. They claim the calendar hasn't changed for 1000s of years, but that it should be looked at by designers as 'record of intent' and have services created around that. Interesting angle indeed.

Desti is a natural language search tool also from SRI International, but it wasn't clear where the 'AI' added benefit beyond natural language travel searches.

The point in these and others is that AI is about specific domain experts enhancements, not so much a robot that can think for itself.

Web typography to Google Glass

Left of AI, I think one of the most interesting sessions was one given by Richard Rutter on web typography. He gave a really engaging talk on the capabilities of OpenType and CSS3 but with a tight focus on responsive design, how to pair fonts, swap out etc etc. A man who really understands designing for x-channel usage and who, for me, has taken responsive design to the Nth degree. Good show.

SXSW - Google Glass

Google Glasses were demoed by Timothy Jordan of Google X to an excited SX audience. Though with all the talk of 'Moonshots' and so on the message here too was clear - Glass is a new platform and is for 'just-in-time', useful and temporary information. The timeliness of the content presented or captured through Glass, and the nature of it's invasiveness (if at all) is key to it's success. It's not a surveillance / recording device. 

Ouya and gamification

OUYA was also a treat to discover. I hadn't heard of the $99 andorid based gaming console until SX and I'm not particularly convinced that it has a solid future given that it has been assembled out of parts readily available to anyone – but then I guess that point can be levelled at any open-source project of this nature.

The proposition is mostly sound, I understand the observation that touch devices have brought about a whole world of innovative gameplay that you can't really get on the TV and that theses new games have also widened the definition of 'gamer'. 

It's easy to see that the big consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation don't really touch these type of games, instead being focused on rich immersive, block buster, film-score defining environments such as Fallout and Call of Duty. But then I'd argue that these more flippant games are innovative because of the constraints on their platform, but also because of their context of use.

In short, trying to replicate that experience on a TV might work but I'm not convinced. However at $99 I think quite a few people will simply give it a go, a point well supported by the pre-orders. Also the Kickstarter stats are immense - raising £1M in 8 hours 22 minutes.

Anyway silicon valley tech darling does not commercial success make.

I wish OUYA well, it may disrupt the gaming industry a tad but with Smart TVs and Apple no doubt brining the App Store to a TV soon, personally I don't see it surviving long.

Still on games, Christina Wodtke gave a pretty compelling talk on The Mecahnics of Magic: 7 Game Design Insights and THANK GOD she didn't talk about gameifiction and badges! Instead she opted for a more sophisticated discussion around some principals of design that experience design / UX could borrow from the gaming industry. There was some interesting tools and concepts shared including the 'the loop' and 'the core mechanic', 'gaming elders' and 'mastery' but I think her main message was around the 'play/test/play/test' mantra - emphasis on play. 


In The Future of Porn, Cindy Gallop presented a change from the SX norm by opening with 'I sleep with men in their twenties'. The social mission of her start-up MakeLoveNotPorn.tv is a worthy one, but one undermined by Gallop's profile in my opinion. 

She may be passionate about reducing the taboo nature of sex in mainstream life, to change the quality of porn (because we all use it) and to engage in a serious debate about why business typically won't support the adult industry. But she's still trying to make some cash.

The proposition is a user generated porn site where the incentive is to split revenues for 3 week rents of the homemade porn while taking porn and adult out of the dark and into the mainstream light. The site will curate each film to ensure it's authenticity and they hope to create the porn equivalent of 'Charlie bit my finger'.

SXSW - Future of Porn

Apparently, this is sex and not porn. Several customer emails were referenced that explained the effect that MakeLoveNotPorn.tv is having on their own personal sex lives and the appetite for quality homemade and importantly 'real' sex.

The average age of a child discovering porn in the US is just 8 years old - and given the proliferation of free porn online it's highly likely that the first experience of it is unlikely to represent what actually happens in a normal relationship. Changing this is alone is a very worthy, though potentially impossible cause. Good luck to her.

Gallop is clearly frustrated at trying to get this start-up off of the ground though, explaining that she still can't find a bank, that she can't work with Amazon, Paypal or other mainstream elements simply because her business is in the adult industry. Instead that have to work with a shady group of over-charging sector specialists.

Gallop also revealed some interesting adult themed start-ups during her interview:

  1. Vibease - an app based sex toy to be used by couples who spend time apart

  2. Offbeatr - a Kickstarter environment for adult products and services

  3. They Fit - custom made condoms

  4. Bang with Friends - a service that allows Facebook users to anonymously mark-up the people in their friends list that they would willingly sleep with, for the service to make the introduction should the feeling be reciprocated.

She is clearly passionate and I mostly enjoyed the talk, but I was hoping to hear more about the innovations happening within the industry that would be relevant to the mainstream. I think from her point of view, there aren't any, porn is going downhill.

Naturally the keynote talks given by Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX), Bre Petis (MakerBot), Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), Esther Dyson (EDVentures) and Bruce Sterling were all fantastic. Musk was incredible, not through content or charisma (you'd think he was better at this sort of thing), but just to experience his attitude first hand – a real life Tony Stark.

So, in addition to the above and much much more Austin, Texas receives it's weird techy guests very well indeed, supplying a friendly backdrop, great music, awesome barbecue and incredible beer to boot. 

SXSW - Bangers Bar

SXSW - Pass

SXSW - 6th Street

What's not to like?

Rest assured, I return to SomeOne/Else hugely inspired and invigorated, with several ideas that I want to put into practice (plus a few jars of Iron Works barbecue sauce).

If you wonder whether it's worth going, I'd answer by saying that it's I'll be going again next year. Unquestionably.

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