SXSW has been one of my favorite annual events for years because it brings together such an eclectic group of people, and there is never a shortage of new things to experience.
This year was unique, as many of us were coming out of our pandemic cocoons for the first time in two years. While much of the festival felt familiar, it was clear that the tech landscape has changed in some exciting ways while we were all on video calls.
Here are some of my top takeaways from a whirlwind few days in Austin:
Web3 is dominant
It seemed like every street corner in Austin was plastered with announcements for an NFT drop, a new metaverse, or a crypto event. In one of the first activations I walked into, I was offered a complimentary NFT at the door and proceeded up the stairs to see multiple people in headsets playing a social VR game that was being projected on the walls. Most of this technology has been part of SXSW in the past, but this year it was inescapable and part of almost every conversation.
Holograms are here
One of my favorite sci-fi elements is closer than ever to being realized at scale. I traveled to Austin to judge the Extended Reality and Immersive Technology competition; the winner of this year’s competition, Matsuko, promises to allow users to “experience true holographic presence using just a smartphone.”
We are finally getting to a point where holographic content creation is accessible to a wide user group, and just starting to get a sense of what that could unlock. On a panel about volumetric production, Yasmin Elayat, co-founder of Scatter, was asked about what the future holds. “I’m excited for more live streaming, real-time content,” she said. “We see a future where volumetric video and your hologram will be your passport to the metaverse.”
Sound takes center stage
I had the good fortune of catching up with Jacqueline Bosnjak, the CEO and founder of the sound technology company Mach1, and getting an update on the latest in spatial audio. We reminisced about the launch of Bose AR at a past SXSW — an effort that the company sadly shuttered only a couple of years later. Now that spatial audio has been embraced by Apple and popularized on apps like Clubhouse, there’s renewed energy around the possibilities for how sound can transform digital experiences. Mach1 recently announced a partnership with Evercast that will enable remote sound mixing review, making it easier to produce content across distributed teams.
Heightened emphasis on social justice & equity
Much of the content in the XR Experience Exhibition this year reflected the broader conversation about social justice that movements like Black Lives Matter have driven over the past few years. I was particularly moved by Breonna’s Garden, a VR experience (also available on mobile AR) that immerses the viewer in the life of Breonna Taylor. The emotional impact of that particular piece was so intense that I actually had to take a break before it finished, and I plan to revisit it again.
Outside of the expo floor, I was happy to see books like Inclusion on Purpose by Ruchika Tulshyan and How To Be An Ally by Melinda Epler featured at the festival this year.
There’s real magic to gathering in person
Even with all these amazing technologies and content SXSW has to offer, the main highlight of my time in Austin was seeing old friends, sharing meals together, and striking up serendipitous conversations with new friends over drinks. I am a big believer in the power of technology to bring us together, and I will continue to support companies pushing the boundaries of what is possible there, but I think there will always be an important role for old fashioned face-to-face conversations. And it will be a long time before the metaverse can rival Austin’s tacos.