Pete Edwards is chief strategy officer at Engine
My first day in SXSW’s Austin welcomes me with rain (this is not what I signed up for) and the chorus of the Grackle – Austin’s own avian pest akin to a long tailed starling with football thug aggression and a call to match.
A breakfast sourced from the local Whole Foods store is as tasty as the shop is overwhelming – a spectacular choice of the finest fresh and organic, from what I learn is one of America’s retail darlings. Not what I’d expect from the heart of Texas. This type of unusual combination will come to form the theme for the rest of my day.
A damp stroll to the conference centre follows, dampened by the splash from a passing high speed 18 wheeler (pedestrians are nothing in the land of the car), revived by the good Samaritan that was the Chevy hospitality car driver who spotted wet and bedraggled Brits and whisked us off to registration.
Once there the scale of the event hits home. The convention centre alone is gargantuan. It occupies full four blocks and twice as many floors. A monolithic lump surrounded by the ubiquitous global hotel brands.
Wearable tech and connected health
The first session is a whirlwind of facts on ‘connected health’. Apparently 27% of Americans are wearing some form of medical sensor on (or in) their bodies. These sensors answer questions like how well is your kidney transplant performing. Is the course of pills you’ve been prescribed right for you, the right drug, the right dose. Yes, the sensor sits in the gut!
Body computing, is changing the way individuals can understand their own health. Flexible electronic tattoos attached to your skin or on a transplanted organ monitor in, real time, the body wellbeing. Clear applications for remote healthcare. But also more superficial pleasures. Creative combinations lead to attaching biometric sensors in a person’s body to those sensors in a connected BMW. Marry up driver respiration, temperature, body position and calorie burn to a responsive driving task and you have a fascinating and rewarding experience.
It’s not all good
Ms Saxon finished early so a quick dip into ‘Are we making the right medical decisions’. Wrong decision. Poor content , badly presented. And here’s the thing with SXSW – a wealth of intellectual nourishments surrounded by a plenty of tat – how to pick the winners is the delegates overarching challenge.
Body tracking, gamer tech rethought and big data
Next up Stephen Kim of Microsoft. Slow start but built to an amazing conclusion. And again it’s the unusual collaboration of ideas that create something new and exciting. Xbox kinetic body tracking – tech built to satisfy gamers – is a technology that can translate sign language into text and vice versa – potentially allowing deaf people to work in places never before thought possible. A truly powerful application of technology that can enable and enhance lives.
Next up, the SXSW ingénue’s mistake – a trip off site (beyond the convention centre) to visit a Big Data session at the Sheraton 10 blocks away (Chevy courtesy car steps in again) . Mistake 1. Pain to get there, Mistake 2. Session shuts it’s doors as I arrive as it’s full. However serendipity kicks in and the fall back is a really informative 40 minutes on social media habits of teens. Fascinating history of social that explains behaviours in a new light.
Lunch is a turkey roll ate in the back of a pedicab back the bunker (sorry convention centre)
Geeks will save the world
The afternoon moves from the sublime to the ridiculous. First up the ‘Keynote’. Dr Tyson Grasse – clearly a celebrated US scientist cum broadcaster, and with good reason. Sometimes superficial yet consistently passionate and eloquent, his treatise into the merits of thinking scientifically strikes a chord. Lines like ‘the geeks are going to save the world’ are hugely appreciated. An hour passes very enjoyably, and the 3,500 ‘geeks’ present are delighted.
Finally Combinatorial Creativity – something I was looking forward to all day. And SXSW in microcosm. The session facilitator a gum chewing sycophant (yes, the bloke asking question chews gum into his microphone for 40 minutes!). Product director from tumblr the worst exemplar of all things lazy digital – complacent, arrogant, full of ‘awesomes’, ‘cools’, ‘software dudes’ and ‘stuff’ but sadly bereft of insight. Dave Germano – digital director of Vice a voice of reason, opinion and inspiration.
And that’s it in a nutshell – whilst the individual may be unpredictable suspect, the sum of the parts is magical, and the bringing together of unrelated themes makes something truly memorable, creative and more importantly, applicable. Roll on day 2.