SXSW 2016: Top 10 Takeaways

This year at SXSW Interactive, ICF Olson had boots on the ground to cover the hot topics of the conference and report back.

It’s an exhausting, inspiring, taco-fueled jaunt through Austin every March. This year at SXSW Interactive, ICF Olson had boots (cowboy ones, obviously) on the ground to cover the hot topics of the conference and report back with their findings. We hope these takeaways will help our clients stay out in front of the fast-paced digital space as we continue to work with them to evolve their businesses.

1. AR and VR are ready to explode.

Platforms that people have talked about for years are truly on the cusp of becoming actionable for brands with consumers. Hololens (think the new Google Glass but way less dorky) is ready to break out of the pack this year in AR and SamsungGear is already there with its VR options. Mind-blowing immersed experiences that are seamlessly tied to your social world are here. They have finally figured out the physical engagement and tactile tingle that has been missing from all previous efforts. So there is no need to travel to lovely Sandusky, Ohio for the Cedar Point Valravn roller coaster any more—Samsung can now truly bring it to you.


Additionally, big news came the day following the close of SXSW Interactive when Sony announced a fall release of the PS VR. Unlike other VR headsets, no additional purchase of a $2,000 desktop with sufficient processing power will be required. The PS VR is the true Trojan horse of the AR/VR revolution. Additionally, more inputs such as gloves that recreate touch sensations and headsets that use audio to further augment VR and AR experiences will begin to enter the market.

2. Wearable Technology – Um yeah, not quite there.

The flood of MedTech, the optimistic efforts from Under Armour and the prediction of a $5.8B market by 2018 is indeed driving the wearable technology hurricane of interest. But when you actually pull apart some of the latest wearables in clothing and jewelry in the market that were on display at SXSW, you were left wanting. Top brands are working on improving it, but the real marker will come when design icons and luxury brands enter the market. That will be the sign the category has arrived and is ready for mass appeal versus something still “on the horizon.” Where is the Versace collection Nike Hyperdunk shoes? Come on!

3. Content isn’t king anymore—he is now emperor, chief and savior—and everyone has access to him.

Just about every discussion, from healthcare to horticulture, centered on the almighty importance of content. Understand your brand, what you are trying communicate, what people get from the content and what you are trying to accomplish. If you can’t do all of that, step away from the phone or laptop until those answers are clear. Staff your team with content creators that can think like people, cut through the bullshit and earn trust from your audience.

On the topic of content and its many creators, the next wave of Snapchats is on the way. More apps are being launched and developed that, like Snapchat, make everyone storytellers and filmmakers. A good example from creator of “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki: KnowMe, which he describes as in between Snapchat and Final Cut Pro.

4. Diversity in all forms is crucial to innovation.

Social media has destroyed many barriers that have existed globally, politically and socially. This makes the brands and retailers who are totally inclusive in their leadership and innovation the best positioned for success. This includes diversity in gender, ethnicity and even size. Yahoo style editor Joe Zee called the latter “The Acceptance Revolution.”

The growing Latino influence in particular was clear in many sessions, events and brand activations. There is a clear acceleration of the significance of Latino consumers but we’re seeing it in less of a segmented way. Latinos increasingly have a massive influence on American culture, politics, and the broader consumer marketplace, not just an ethnic segment of it.

5. The rise of digital voice is here.

Cortana, Siri, Amazon Echo as well as gesture and other alternatives will shift to become our primary input and means of digital interaction, dramatically impacting digital experiences and thus UX design. Will eye tracking and gaze replace the click? What is a click in VR? This is a topic that is bubbling from below but will be a major point to be addressed by those who work in the digital world.

6. Security and encryption versus government regulations was bubbling under a lot of digital talks.

The action taken in California in the case against Apple will drive many more ethical questions about our personal information security. This and the drive toward the elimination of passwords and replacing them with such things as facial recognition, the selfie as access authorization, biometrics and retina scanning will be accelerated by these issues.

7. The digital and physical worlds will play more nicely together. 

There will be a cease-fire between the world of digital and physical—it will no longer be “either-or,” it will become “both-together.” Finding the balance of real, tangible experiences improved and made more efficient and personal with digital is the key to future brand and retail success. AI, Big Data and Wearables will converge to begin to offer more genuinely unique and personalized digital and physical experiences, both in the world of clicks and the world of bricks.


8. The physical and digital worlds are converging rapidly and brands will need to invest in digital to stay in the game.

Traditional product brands have made significant acquisitions and investments in digital experiences to engage customers and stay relevant. More common brands are evolving to become technology-driven companies—Gatorade (Gx Bottles), McDonald’s (Digital Ordering), Under Armour, Pepsi (Spire), Starbucks and more. If your brand isn’t evolving with technology as it relates to its relationship with your customer, you risk being irrelevant.

During Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s keynote, he explained that not even five years ago, Under Armour wasn’t focused on technology. Through the acquisition of Map My Fitness in 2013, UA quickly added an engineering staff of 20 developers focused on the fitness experience. Now, two and a half years later, UA has a staff of over 500 developers that are solely focused on connecting their physical products with a digital experience. 

9. When it comes to SXSW, go for the gold.

If you’re a marketer considering attending SXSW 2017 (yes, we’re already talking about it), you should strongly entertain getting a Gold badge to both Interactive + Film. More than ever, this year’s “film” sessions were packed with advice that’s just as, if not more, valuable to any marketers routinely creating any type of digital content.

Mr. Robot

As we rather emphatically mentioned earlier, content is everything and knowing the latest and greatest ways to produce and distribute content can be just as relevant to a brand video or a influencer video series as a short film. Plus, with an expected multiple-day overlap of film and interactive, you can probably get back home in time for your family to still remember who you are. So do yourself a favor when you’re in Austin next year and get some best practices imported straight from Hollywood. Or, if you’re a maniac, load up on energy drinks and go for platinum.

10. Finally, attend sessions you know nothing about.  

Trust us. It’s increasingly crucial to play “wide and deep” in your area of expertise, so take an opportunity like SXSW to help get you there.

Contributors:  Jen Boyles, George Fiddler, Kris Matheson, Rick Schwenk, Bryan Specht, Charlie Witowski