March 22, 2012
by Tyler Hillsman
South By Southwest is a curious place. I have never seen so many people, ideas, and technologies all converge on one place like they did in Austin in early March. There are literally thousands of people, events, and brands all rolled up into one long weekend that is way more than one person can completely grasp. Because of this, it is extremely hard to choose the top takeaway points. But I’ll try.
There are still unique ideas out there. For brands, SXSW is all about getting noticed. But that’s becoming a paradox: how do you get noticed when there are so many brands there? You’ve got to be unique (offer what no one else does), you’ve got to be convenient (with so many distractions, many attendees won’t go out of their way), and you’ve got to be valuable (handing out flyers doesn’t cut it). I think the biggest winner this year was American Express. Hot on the heels of announcing their Twitter integration program, the credit card company offered free tickets to a Jay-Z concert to those who added their Twitter account to their card. This made many cardholders happy (and many others, like myself, want an AmEx card).
Another SXSW winner (that didn’t have to pay Jay-Z) was Chevy. Downtown Austin is beyond crowded during the conference and walking between venues can take some time. Chevy saw that need and sent a fleet of heavily-branded cars and drivers to act as a free taxi service. Hailing a car was easy (if they didn’t already have a passenger), completely free, and extremely useful. An additional benefit for Chevy was getting people into their newest cars, hopefully making an impact for those who are car shopping in the near future.
Ambient (or passive) location is the future. A recurring theme at SXSW was the discussion of ambient location applications. Brief intro: Active location interfaces like Foursquare check-ins or Facebook location tagging require the user to tell the software where they are (or actively allow their phone to do so). Ambient (passive) location interfaces like Highlight, Foursquare Radar, or Geoloqi are always on, reporting your location to the service in order to provide something of value. Many sessions at SXSW focused on the progress of these ambient location services. One of the most buzzed-about product launches at SXSW was that of Highlight, an app that lets you know about the people around you in order to facilitate networking. While the perceived usefulness of this app varies from person to person, it shows what is possible with ambient location.
One of the keynote speakers was Amber Case of Geoloqi, a technology that allows you to set up geofences and create location-based triggers. Much of her talk focused on the potential of ambient location services: in the future, your house will turn on the lights when you pull in the driveway, your car will unlock its doors and start the ignition when you walk up to it, and you will be able to look at the Wikipedia article for locations that are near you, just by pulling out your phone. Much of this technology already exists, and it will become more and more useful in the years to come. In a session with Dennis Crowley, the Fourquare co-founder and CEO discussed his vision for his company’s new Radar functionality. The only limitation right now is the hardware. The GPS sensors in today’s smartphones take a toll on the battery, but as battery life improves in the next few years, ambient location technologies will begin to thrive.
We can do anything. My biggest takeaway from SXSW does not come from any specific examples, but rather the experience of the entire conference mixed up and viewed from a distance. We are living in a world in which the phones in our pockets are more powerful than nearly all computers a few short years ago. A generation ago, the personal computer was just being born. Today, nearly all the information in the world can be accessed from nearly anywhere in the world. Technology is growing at an exponential rate, and we are the beneficiaries of it. As the saying goes: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Never has this been more true.
If you see a problem or a need and you know how to fix it, the obstacles are lower than they ever have been before. It may take money, but there are people who will pay it. It may take programming skills, but there are plenty of great programmers out there. It may take time, but that’s a small sacrifice. Ben Milne hated credit card fees, so he started Dwolla to change it. Dennis Crowley wanted to see what his friends thought about different restaurants, so he built Foursquare. Phil Libin wanted to make a tool that acted as an external brain and remembered everything for you, so he created Evernote. Jonathan Stark wanted to see what people would do if he bought them all coffee, so he shared his Starbucks card with the world. Chris Radcliff loves space and the space program and wanted to meet others who do, so he started the SpaceUp “unconference” and met other through Twitter. SXSW is full of these stories. Regular people with motivation can create something awesome. If there is anything out there that you care passionately about, do it. It’s the perfect time.