Founded 30 years ago, “South By” is Austin’s pride and joy, an annual technology, media, movie, music and innovation conference-come-festival that runs from 10-19 March.
This year an estimated 70,000 plus registrants and artists are participating. Speakers include former vice president Joe Biden, CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, pop star Kesha, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, music legends Nile Rogers and Mick Fleetwood, NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet, ocean conservationist Dr Fabien Cousteau (grandson of Jacques-Yves), Yoda master Frank Oz, and experts from the Pentagon, the CIA, Microsoft, NASA and a mixed bag of bleeding edge technologies big and small.
March in Austin is supposed to be hot. A surprise cold, wet snap resulted in a flurry of hastily overlaid plastic ponchos. Demographically, the crowd ranges from 20s through to 40-somethings, all dressed in casual clothes and sensible shoes. An eclectic blend of techno hipsters sporting backpacks, backwards baseball caps, occasional man buns — and not as many beards as you’d expect — each juggling multiple electronic devices, wires trailing out of ears and pockets. Young guys and gals talking incessant start-ups, successive apps, embedding, messaging, backend systems and workarounds, swapping schedules for party intel in the ubiquitous, never ending coffee queues. Every available wall socket is encrusted with barnacle-like charging devices.
Too many topics to cover here, plenty for the scientifically inclined: presentations on AI, AR, VR, impacts of machine learning, military drone swarms, genetically modified athletes, synthetic biology, pattern recognition, the power of geospatial context, drone journalism ethics, space exploration, democratised data access. Hearables, wearables, cleantech innovation, flexible substrates, optical interconnects, devices that charge themselves from light & waste heat.
Kristy Richards, from The Lab Insight and Strategy and I executed a presentation: “Sci Fi Realities and Tomorrow’s Consumer,” outlining some of the expectations for a device-free, augmented, AI enhanced and potentially transhuman future.
Meanwhile, transhumanism was taking tentative steps inside the Trade Hall, where Gavin from Lockheed Martin demonstrated passive load transfer via exoskeleton. I sampled cold brew coffee infused with nitrogen courtesy of the American Chemical Society as a Wi-Fi connected, electronic gesture-and-voice-controlled HD mirror analyzed my face, provided a skin index overview and advised me what to do about problem areas.
Beyond the high tech home brewing systems, premium hemp products for humans and pets, e-pulse pain relief, hand crafted acoustic guitars and digital mindfulness and stress resilience training, Animal Equality employed VR goggles to showcase the appalling conditions inside factory farms.
I was overtaken by a robot while passing the Christian Science Monitor stand, en route to the Exoplanet Travel Bureau where a girl handed out travel posters beside a large, steam emitting model of Enceledus.
Outside on the street, the deep, reverberating thrum of base and clash of cymbals drowned out traffic and snatches of breeze-born Japanese and Scandinavian. Skinny girls with blue hair cheered skatepunks doing tricks on boards rimmed with flashing led lights. Music seeped tentatively from corner bars and open windows.
Dropping in to the Google fibre lounge, I immersed myself in a VR headset to experience Skull Island as a helicopter passenger, flying between tall cliffs, only to be smashed out of the sky by bellowing King Kong. Next up, the “Google Tilt Brush experience” — VR painting performed by waving hands with results displayed behind on a massive screen.
SXSW is convergence of smart, switched on, curious folk, a welcoming, friendly party atmosphere with more events and experiences on offer than it would be possible to absorb across a year. Whatever the future may bring, I hope it includes more festivals the caliber of this one.
Cat was until recently the Cosmos fiction editor. Her debut science fiction novel, Lotus Blue, was published by Skyhorse Press this month. It is reviewed in the next issue of Cosmos magazine out in April.
Cat Sparks is an Australian science fiction writer and editor.
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