What We Learned About the Future at SXSW 2014

What We Learned About the Future at SXSW 2014The South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) has been a tradition since 1987 in Austin, Texas and has earned a reputation as a mecca for technophiles and the takeoff point for apps, gadgets and technological innovation.

We made it to this year’s show and, while there weren’t any headline making launches, there was still enough new tech and gadgetry to make even the most hard-core techie smile. We’ve compiled our notes and put together this retrospective of what this year’s SXSW offered.

One of the biggest themes at this year’s festival was something that’s on the mind of many consumers right now privacy. After the bomb that Edward Snowden dropped on the American people in the last year, the one thing that most brands want to avoid is looking like they’re part of the “establishment,” especially among millennials. Snowden’s videoconference at the festival was one of the most anticipated, and afterwards, the most talked about, of the entire show.

Ironically, after Mashable announced that mobile wouldn’t be present at SXSW this year, it was one of the biggest subjects talked about. Now that it’s the dominant digital screen, brands and advertisers everywhere are going “mobile first” when it comes to their marketing and business strategies.

Ray Kurzweil reminded us that, at least in his opinion, AI will soon match, if not overtake, human intelligence. Google and Amazon both brought their robot prototypes and (mostly) everybody was talking about “The Singularity” – the point where AI will become smarter than humans.

If that means quicker delivery of our Amazon orders, we’re all for it.

SXSW also showcased geo-location and customized ad delivery. “Beacons,” which were used sparingly at the show, will be “getting small” very soon, as small as a grain of sand, in fact. And, while big data was certainly a topic of discussion, hyper personalized customer service was a bit more popular as witnessed by the SOS Mayday button from Kindle as well as Fuelband, Shine and FitBit with their “quick-glance” offerings.

Seamless connectivity was the subject of much interest at the festival this year as Starbucks introduced their Clover smart coffee machine. But some of us (myself included) won’t be happy until Starbucks finally gives us the ability to order a drink on our phones. We all know its’ coming. Let’s get there, shall we?

Although we’ve been waiting for it to happen for a number of years now, it seems that the potential to have, for example, a “smart fridge” that will tell you when you’re running low on beer and pizza or a health monitor app that connects you directly to your insurance company is definitely getting closer to reality.

One of the most interesting concepts introduced this year was the creation of “brand experience ecosystems.” What this involves is not just digital advertising of products and services but indeed a total brand experience that involves creating advertising for consumers that engages and converts them from every advertising aspect, 24/7. A bit Orwellian, frankly, but with talk of brands disappearing ( i.e. James Surowiecki’s recent piece in the New Yorker, “Twilight of the Brands.” ) it’s the next logical step in their evolution.

Talk of a “collaborative economy” was also  widespread at this year’s SXSW. It fixated on crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter and even Angie’s List and Uber, and was centered around the fact that products, apps and tech being developed and funded on these platforms are being used and/or sold by some of the biggest retailers in the country. Avis, for example, acquired Zipcar while office superstore Staples is selling products that are being developed on Quirky, among others. What it’s all leading to, as far as we learned at the festival, is that brands will soon be working hand-in-hand with freelancers, consumers and tech developers on everything from producing new products to risk regulations, or risk being kept out of the collaborative loop.

Finally, the last thing we learned is simply that there’s far too much to take in at SXSW than one person, or even a group of people, can hope to achieve. Yes, it’s a bit of a crazy party atmosphere, but in the end it’s also one of the best professional conferences for technology and forward thinking in the country. From bioengineering to “factories in a box,” the technology and ideas that saw the light of day at SXSW this year already have us drooling in anticipation of next year’s festival.