March 23, 2018Published by: Battenhall Intern

SXSW 2018: Trends and highlights

South by Southwest (SXSW) – the Texas-based annual celebration of interactive technology, film, and music – wrapped up at the weekend, and it was as inspiring and eclectic as ever.

There was much discussion about the crackdown on tech giants, a last-minute sold-out Q&A session with Elon Musk, and plenty of AI doom-mongering, but the buzziest attractions at the show were immersive experiences that involved HBO programme Westworld and upcoming movie Ready Player One, along with the latest in AR technology...

Immersive brand activations

Considering SXSW is the ultimate multimedia festival, it’s somewhat surprising that this year’s most talked about experience is one that largely eschewed tech. The bigwigs of TV show Westworld recreated the wild west in an immersive brand activation experience that generated a huge amount of media coverage and was dubbed “one of the best publicity stunts of the 21 century”.

Steven Cardwell, director of programme marketing at HBO, said: “The idea of … the show [is] an immersive entertainment experience. Guests travel to a park to live out their wildest fantasies. It was really a no-brainer for us to bring that to the real world.”

The lucky few who managed to get tickets were shuttled on a Delos coach to the remote town 30 minutes away. On arrival the ‘guests’ were met by more than 60 actors playing ‘hosts’ – the sci-fi series’ robot characters. The two-acre park featured replicas of the show’s Mariposa saloon and Coronado hotel, a barber where guests could get free shaves, and a post office, which marked the start of the experience; guests received personalised letters containing puzzles to set them off on adventures, and then they were free to explore the park. Those who pursued the puzzles were rewarded with easter eggs and clues from the show’s upcoming season.

Forbes concluded that the stunt’s effectiveness arose from it providing “a sense of there-ness that is only currently possible through physical presence” – a sobering reminder that what people really crave is physical interactive experiences. The experience, which took place March 9-11, was a huge success for HBO, and is almost certainly going to kickstart a trend for immersive and interactive brand experiences at future events.

Ready Player One

Those who weren't talking about the Western-themed fictional park were raving about another activation by agency Giant Spoon (which was also responsible for Westworld): a marketing push alongside a surprise premiere for Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster movie Ready Player One. Warners Bros brought the film to life, literally, by taking over a large building in the heart of SXSW. The set included Zero Gravity nightclubs, ‘The Stacks’ (a host of stacked trailer homes with a VR experience in each), a life-sized Iron Giant, a full replica DeLorean (see pic), and plenty of 80s paraphernalia. Woah, heavy...

Augmented Reality

We've heard it before but the signs are finally there that augmented reality (AR) is getting some traction. Amid a variety of vendors showing off their AR devices, the two that stood out most were Sony's AR projector and Bose's AR glasses.

Sony is no newcomer to SXSW. Each year it opens the 'Wow Factory’, an exhibition of gadgets, games and interactive experiences, designed to thrill visitors. This year Sony offered a new window into AR in the form of a mini-projector, called Xperia Touch, that supersedes the clunky, divisive AR headsets. Sony’s interactive hologram-like experience could be the solution to take AR from niche interest to mainstream reality. Costs are still a hindrance, though, with the mini-projector priced at $1,700 (£1,215).

AR is commonly associated with the visual, but at SXSW, audio giant Bose put sound centre stage. It demonstrated two prototypes of AR ‘shades’ that deviate from AR lenses' tendency to be highly unwearable. Embedded with motion sensors, the shades are fed GPS (location) data through a bluetooth connection to a phone. The nine-axis sensors combine with location data to determine a user's whereabouts and the direction they're looking. Locations are used to trigger specific audio cues while sensors are used as head-based gesture controls.

The features were brought together in a demo tour of an Austin street where visitors were given descriptions of building interiors. A language app was also previewed, along with location-based music playlists, with suggestions made based on if a person was, for example, in the gym or at home.

Current models have 3-4 hours of battery per charge, but Bose is working to extend this to 6-8 hours for the commercial version. It’s also on the lookout for potential hardware partnerships with eyewear companies, such as Ray-Ban, while on the software side there are 11 confirmed partners including Yelp, TripAdvisor and Strava.

The future

SXSW 2018 was a reminder of the two main opposing forces in technology: while industries and brands continue to push the boundaries of our reality with AR and VR, and celebrate technological developments, it’s those very advancements that also trigger a deep craving within consumers and audiences for tactile, physical experiences. Keep your eyes peeled for brands making more of these trends in 2018, and we’re already excited for what’s in store at SXSW 2019!

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