28 Mar 2017

Key insights from South by Southwest 2017

If 2016 was the year of Artificial Intelligence, then 2017 was most certainly the Year of the Bot.

Christina Mannatt, Marketing

If you asked people in 1989 what they needed to make their life better, it was unlikely that they would have said a decentralized network of information nodes that are linked using hypertext.

Sep Kamvar
Mastery & Mimicry, Farmer & Farmer

Drawing approximately 30,000 attendees to Austin, TX, the South by Southwest Interactive Conference has come to represent an annual pilgrimage of sorts for a diverse group of devotees, ranging from developers and designers, to futurists and foodies, to pop culturists and venture capitalists. While the presence of brand activations over the last two years has noticeably waned, content programming has never been more robust. Conference-goers can hop between a plethora of wide-reaching sessions of themed tracks like Intelligent Future, Government, Brand & Marketing, Design and Experiential Storytelling. Before we dive in, allow me to share with you some general Rules for a Successful SXSW:

  1. Lines. You will wait in them. Every day. For a very long time. Sometimes, you will start queuing 45 minutes before a session begins, and when you get to the front of the line, you will be told that the session is at capacity. Which means that you must race to find another relevant session (preferably at the same venue) and hope that you are able to gain admission. If you have your heart set on a session you know will be popular, plan on forfeiting your attendance to any sessions which occur at least one hour before the event.
  2. Tacos and barbecue will be your main source of sustenance for the duration of your stay, so, herbivores: plan ahead.
  3. Uber and Lyft have been banned by the city of Austin, but their replacements, Fasten and Ride, are more than capable of transporting you from Point A to Point B.
  4. Solo sessions. If you are going to SXSW looking for real takeaways, focus on speakers who are presenting alone. Digressions, tangents and self-promotion abound in the panel discussions.

Year of the Bot

If 2016 was the year of Artificial Intelligence, then 2017 was most certainly the Year of the Bot. Despite the near incessant bot-buzz, most speakers readily acknowledge the current limitations due to the infancy of the technology needed to power a true chatbot. In their current form, what we call chatbots are actually “call and response” bots, which help users with task-oriented requests. Abby, the SXSW in-app bot built by Eventbase, was able to tell attendees panel locations, wifi networks and recommended sessions similar to your favorites.

Right now, chatbot development is seen as an extension of a brand’s social media efforts, but many panelists predict that within the next five years, we will see bots emerge as an independent channel with equal (if not greater) importance than social. The reason for this, according to Eventbase’s Jeff Sinclair, is that with chatbots there is no UI learn. Smartphone users already know how to send messages. Furthermore, messaging as a marketing platform is innately more intimate, as most smartphone users use text messaging to communicate with their family and friends. It enables a connection to consumers free from sponsored posts and banner ads. Developers cite the need for more robust natural language processing (NLP) and advancements in deep learning in order to realize the true potential of chatbots.

Despite the limitations, there are plenty of successful brand chatbot activations, the most well known of these done by Call of Duty. The video game releases a new edition with a new cast of characters every year, which means that creating opportunities for engagement between players and the new cast is crucial. In 2016, Call of Duty infiltrated the game with snippets from the 2017 edition, Infinite Warfare, and developed a chatbot based on one of the new characters on Facebook Messenger. Players were presented with a puzzle to solve to gain access to the Infinite Warfare trailer. They worked in tandem around the world using Reddit to share answers and solved the puzzle in all of 47 minutes with over six million messages sent.

One of the more advanced bots is Microsoft’s Xiaoice, which is deployed on a number of messaging platforms and social networks including Weibo, Line and Kik. Xiaoice was launched as a more conversational bot with a distinct personality catering more to chit-chat (as opposed to call and response). Because Chinese consumers have been relying on task-oriented bots for years, they have proven to be an apt test audience for more human-like bots – as opposed to their Western counterparts, who turned Microsoft’s Tay, a Twitter chatbot, into a racist within 24 hours.

Microsoft’s chatbot Xiaoice


There seems to be some consensus around the idea that humans were not meant to spend a majority of their day interacting with screens. Yet here we are, waking up, checking email on our phones before we get out of bed, spending 9+ hours in front of a computer and scrolling and swiping our way from the couch back to bed. But designers and developers need to be thinking beyond the command lines and graphic-based interfaces. When considering how to represent your brand beyond the screen, consider this new wave of user interfaces:

  • Conversational interfaces in their modern form are comprised of voice recognition, natural language processing or a combination of the two. Amazon’s Alexa, Facebook Messenger and Slack are examples of platforms with conversational interfaces, the former relying on voice and the latter responding to text commands.
  • Ambient interfaces belong to devices which create a connected world and record data to assist in task completion, i.e. the Internet of Things. Nest, August and Twist are examples of smart hardware for the home which employ systems like mesh networking, geofencing and machine learning.
  • Kinetic interfaces allow users to communicate with machines using gestures or movement. Microsoft’s Kinect device for Xbox uses a camera and computer vision algorithms to enable everything from interactive video gaming to virtual fitting rooms.
  • Audio interfaces represent the burgeoning hearables market. Imagined as computers inside your ears in their most robust form, the Here One by Doppler Labs offers what it calls “augmented listening.” The wireless earbuds introduced Layered Listening, which blends streaming audio with outside noises, has environment-specific smart noise filters so that you can silence an airplane engine and still hear flight attendant announcements and uses machine learning to create a unique listener profile and predict your preferences in new environments.
  • Biointerfaces are defined as the interaction between organic material (human cells) and inorganic surfaces. Levi’s and Google unveiled their collaboration at SXSW, which features the denim brand’s Commuter jacket woven with Google’s Jacquard smart threads. The result is gesture-based control over certain smartphone functions, all from a tap of the wrist.

Levi’s Commuter Jacket equipped with Google’s Jacquard smart thread

Lately, I’ve been experiencing a new temporal sensation…Until recently, the future was always something out there up ahead of us, something to anticipate or dread, but it was always away from the present. But not any more. Somewhere in the past few years the present melted into the future. We’re now living inside the future 24/7.

Douglas Coupland
Novelist and Artist

Helen Crossley, Facebook’s Head of Audience Insights Research, says that mobile has been the single biggest catalyst when it comes to consumer behavior in the last several decades. As such, brands must now create an immediate and meaningful impact within seconds in order to retain user engagement


decrease in perception of time while using mobile vs. desktop computer


increase in scrolling speed on mobile vs. desktop computer


increase in time to conversation on mobile vs. desktop computer

A Matter of Time

Christine Todorovich, Principal Design Director at Frog Design, says that we are experiencing a fundamental shift in how we experience time, which also affects our rate of innovation. In theory, as our experience of time decreases and our rate of innovation increases and technology latency is lower than human latency, we will reach a state of hyperreality, or when we are no longer able to distinguish between what is real and not real. However, the formal elements of design – line, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern, color and composition – do not account for modern consumer behaviors and our expectation of immediacy. Todorovich argues that the new formal elements should include the invisible parts of design, like time, data and sound. She shared several provocations on how to create products with hyperreality in mind:

  • Design for flow, not for screens. Users don’t care about screens, they care about intent and experience. Exemplar: Netflix
  • Create a language of time. Motion provides meaning, makes experiences feel more alive and gives you a way to communicate relationship and hierarchy without adding more content or interfaces. Exemplar: Google Design’s Material Motion.
  • Give people perspective by orienting them in time. We are sailors without a ship drowning in a sea of content. Exemplars: Wayback Machine, Facebook Memories, #tbt, #latergram
  • Be intentional about the lifespan of your product. Exemplars: Somebody (messaging service from Miranda July), “Nimbus” by Berndnaut Smilde.
  • Make time a core part of our product’s value proposition. Exemplars: Snapchat, Hyperlapse, Periscope.

Netflix user interface


In discussing her best-selling book The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute, offers techniques for curious minds on how to think like a futurist. She examines the Paradox of the Present, or when you can’t see beyond what you currently know to be true. Our fear of the unknown holds us back and instead of pushing toward the future, we turn towards the past.

Take the flying car. The first patent for a flying car was filed in 1917, and, for most people, the mental image is The Jetsons. But, Webb asked, why are we still trying to reinvent 100-year-old technology? Do we even want flying cars? What if we’re actually more interested in mobility? Does it have to be a car at all?

Maintaining a futurist’s mindset in probing the auto industry, we know that automation will bring about the death of jobs. This might immediately conjure thoughts about manufacturing and Detroit, but what about the less obvious jobs. When self-driving cars become the norm, what happens to traffic reporting – the TV reporters, software developers and sensor manufacturers? What happens to valet parking? Will these categories evolve for the new economy or will they become obsolete?

How does Webb tackle these questions? “Plan ahead for disruption; think now about opportunities.”

NIO's self driving car

Thought starters

Context is the new content

We create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. Every brand is also a blog is also a video channel is also an app. We are inundated with notifications – Read my email! Respond to my text! Buy my product! – during all hours of the day. The average human attention span has been surpassed by none other than the goldfish. We have reached peak content, and as brands and marketers, it is no longer a question of what to say, but why, when and how you’re saying it. Context is what drives Netflix’s recommendation engine. Context is the key to unlocking the next generation of NLP. Context is what allows retailers to bring the personal touch of brick and mortar retail to the e-commerce experience.


There have been significant developments made in the past five years across a number of emerging categories like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, automation, etc. Something most panelists openly acknowledged was that individually, these technologies are still nascent and that the significant breakthroughs will rely on a convergence of technology across disciplines.

Deep learning

Deep neural networks, which replicate the human brain’s ability to learn, are not a new concept. But until recently, we didn’t have the computing power to realize deep learning’s full potential. Now, these networks can operate without human intervention and can identify patterns in audio and visual inputs. Google made use of fellow Alphabet company DeepMind in order to reduce energy costs at its data centers by 40%.

Computational design

Automattic’s John Maeda presented the third annual Design in Tech report, wherein he discussed the evolution of classical design towards design thinking which, very soon, will be replaced by computational design. This methodology uses computational processes like writing code and data modeling to solve design problems (making it digitally-native) and Maeda argues that it is essential for growth in today’s economy.

Liquid modernity

Postmodernist Zygmunt Bauman’s theory that we have now moved away from the solid modernity (which is stress-averse, resists change and craves order) and are living in a time of liquid modernity wherein we reject traditional social mores, nomads have replaced settlers and disruption is the status quo.


“Capital is being superseded by creativity and the ability to innovate—and therefore by human talents—as the most important factors of production. If talent is becoming the decisive competitive factor, we can be confident in stating that capitalism is being replaced by ‘talentism’.”
– Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, most of us have never been more connected or had more access to information, goods and services. The promise of drone delivery faces immediate challenges when navigating cityscapes, both literally and figuratively. So instead of building more skyscrapers in densely populated urban areas, what if we built horizontal landscrapers (think of a skyscraper flipped on its side) in places where land is abundant and cities are just a few hours’ drive away?

Brand Activations


The #DellExperience showcased the Austin-based company’s latest technology through interactive experiences in virtual reality in video games. They also curated a panel series that featured entrepreneurs and daily musical performances.


In anticipation of the forthcoming Season 3 premiere of Twin Peaks, Showtime opened a pop-up replica of the show’s Double R Diner. Guests were treated to High Brew Coffee, Tiny Pies, inflatable logs and an appearance by Twin Peaks star Kyle MacLachlan.

Via Twin Peaks Facebook

Create + Cultivate

As an organization that caters to young career women, Create + Cultivate hosted a day of female-centric programming, featuring speakers like actress Kristen Bell, former OWN co-president Sheri Salata, Brit + Co founder Brit Morin and NPR’s Alina Selyukh.

Brand creates culture


As part of their ongoing #LennoxArtProject initiative, the HVAC gurus at Lennox let GSD&M partygoers “paint” using cans of compressed air dusters against their temperature reactive paint.