Has SXSW lost its shine?

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“SXSW Interactive is a true incubator of cutting-edge technologies and creativity – it’s the place to preview the technology of tomorrow today”

That is the description on the front page of the SXSW Interactive page. People have debated for the past few years if SXSW has lost its title as the place where the next Twitter will truly emerge, given that for the past two years that has not been the case.

However, it’s hard to argue that SXSW is an incubator of tech ideas. As Brady Forrest puts it: “It’s where Geeks share ideas over beer.” This fuels innovation in tech but, whether the next Snapchat launches during SXSW or not is another story.

Below are four of those major conversations that will shape the technology you use everyday:

The Democratization of VR (Virtual Reality)

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Not surprisingly VR was one of the most popular topics at SXSW boasting almost 3x more mentions on the social channels over the second closest topic. While not a new technology, as it becomes more attainable, we are witnessing it’s tipping point into mainstream.

There were numerous panels on the different uses for VR, from retail, to sports, cinematography and even city planning. And brands did not get left behind with VR experiences either. Samsung gave attendees a test of its new augmented reality technology and Deloitte put together the first VR concert.

However, McDonald’s took the show by leveraging HTC’s new Vive VR technology, which will start shipping in May. At the McDonald’s loft, attendees got to step inside of a virtual, life-size Happy Meal Box and paint a custom masterpiece. The experience was made unique because HTC VR’s device features physical controllers that allow the user to have a digital point of reference, and avoids the dreaded dizziness that many experience when strapping a VR headset.

Of course, this idea is taken to the next level by LEAP motion technology where consumers use their own hands as controllers, which eliminates the need for any physical ones. If you really want to get your mind blown, go check out eyeFluence, a company that is pioneering a VR interface users control simply by using their eyes. Virtual reality has been adopted quickly and the work at SXSW shows that, but perhaps it demonstrates that the winners will be those that can create an experience as natural as life itself.

On your marks…get set…go!

The rise of the Conversational UI and AI

Another hot topic was the emergence of messaging by brands about anything from commerce to marketing to meal delivery. The premise is that mobile messaging or conversational apps will be the hub of users’ lives and will make it easier to have a digital 1-on-1 relationship with brands and services.

This phenomenon is not just a hypothesis; messing apps have eclipsed social networks in total number of users. China’s “WeChat” already has 8 million companies registered to have this level of interaction with users and pay through the app.

Messaging apps are also lowering the barrier of adoptions for apps/services alike such as being able to order an Uber from the convenience of Facebook messenger. Apps like “Lark” in the other hand are introducing new-use cases, like weight loss programs through its automated messaging service that helps users stay on track with their health goals.

The real magic is in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) behind these interactions. Much like the famous SIRI, service providers are developing intelligent systems that can help users find and provide information, but can even be their best friends. The power of AI brings these emotional connections to previously sterile interactions especially for those where users are actually more comfortable interacting with a machine vs. a human. This is powerful for brands increasingly facing competition to win a space in consumer’s hearts.

Retail as culture and community

Lastly, we saw a lot of retail fueled talks, which were also among the most popular ones. But none was more animated and insightful than Rachel Shechtman’s talk. The founder of the popular NY retail space named “STORY” took the audience through her journey and philosophy behind her innovative new model. Her store is a retail concept that takes the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery and sells things like a store.

That means every four to eight weeks, STORY completely reinvents itself -from the design to the merchandise – with the goal of bringing to light a new theme, trend or issue.

They create experiences that focus on ROI on time spent and use metrics like “experience per square feet”. They see product as content vs. inventory, and collaborate with tech vendors like Perch interactive, iStrategy labs, Prism Skylab, and others that bring these to life for shoppers in a way that they can only experience at the store. But all of this took a back seat when she shared countless stories where her model was able to connect mom and pop start ups with major brands and retailers that are taken those businesses to the next level.

All of this points to the convergence of commerce and culture. We witnessed a variety of conversations around how retail, beyond a transaction point, is the making of a community. And retailers that understand this are the ones who will earn the money and time from shoppers.

Eli Saldivar is the director of digital shopper strategy at The Marketing Arm, joining the team in 2015.

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