VR, AI and BBQ – the trends from #SXSW2016
22nd March 2016

By Silvia Sella, Head of Design, MullenLowe Open

Yes, it’s true. SXSW is as cool as everyone that has been says it is. I was lucky enough to attend on its 30th anniversary with our ECD Emma Perkins. Here’s what I learnt,  including the recipe for an authentic guacamole.

What are the big trends at SXSW2016?

VR is not that much different to what we had when it first came out, but thanks to mobile technology it got cheaper. So no surprise then if it’s everywhere and every other brand wants in.
There are 2 kinds of VR: immersion and presence. We are going to see the “first person view” of video games becomes a “you-view”, which makes the experience very intense. Interestingly VR was mentioned at the SoulCycle talk, but despite the founders being interested in the possibility, they rule it out for now as the gear is still too heavy and impractical for intense physical activity.
What we will see is VR becoming a social experience: it will allow us to have meetings and conversations (but is not going to replace human contact and personal connections).

We’ve seen a leap forward on AI. Wired’s Kevin Kelly likes to refer to AI as “artificial smartness”, as he sees it as a useful tool. The robots are not going to replace humans and steal their jobs, instead AI will be a utility, like electricity. The dawn of the electrical age came from adding electric power to existing processes and tools – so his view is that the biggest startups will be providing service/tool “x” + artificial intelligence to deliver it faster, better or cheaper.
We are seeing “industrial helpers” that can learn to perform tasks through trial and error, which is pretty smart. However they will never have the creativity and the experience that humans have: AI will help productivity, but it will never replace creativity.

Anything that can be tracked, will be tracked. And even though we say we care about our privacy, in reality vanity trumps privacy. Real time + personalisation means we are constantly being tracked. The internet of things is also producing all this data about our lives. It sure sounds a bit Big Brother-esque now, but we should make surveillance civilised and reap the benefits. For instance we just have to imagine the potential benefits for medical research.

This was a recurring theme, and what a welcome surprise. As trends go, this one is pretty positive: people care about the environment and social problems meaning brands and tech companies must gear up and care too, or they will be left behind. This trend is driven by millenials, but interestingly the millenial behaviour is influencing the baby boomers in many aspect of life.
At the talk “Culinary innovation, tracking food trends” we heard how we should be expecting to see algae and edible insects on our plates soon. However, what this really represent is a bigger trend towards sustainability: we are concerned about finding alternative protein sources for the sake of the environment, and as consumers we demand to know where our food comes from and how sustainably it has been grown. Funny to hear that in a city where you are never more than a stone throw away from a barbeque joint.

Diversity (or the lack of, especially in tech and STEM) was also high on the agenda. Considering that the UN recognises access to the internet as a human right it’s astonishing to imagine that half of the world population is offline. The internet provides educational tools, awareness and access to role models for those sections of society that are not well represented in tech and media at current time.
It was really inspiring then to attend a NASA talk about Extreme Science and find the panel to be majority female. Seeing the passion and energy these women scientists have when they talk about how to get the biggest space telescope ever made on a rocket and up in space was just as exciting as the possibility of finding out if we are alone in the universe!

There’s no denying the hottest ticket in town was none other than President Obama. We were gutted not to be selected for the tickets. Except that somehow, we found ourselves at the right place at the right time and we couldn’t believe our luck when we managed to get to see the President. Thanks Austin! Anyway, Obama’s message was a call to arms directed to the bright mind gathered in Austin: “Whatever you care about get involved and take action to figure out a new system” he said. “It’s not about the next cool thing, but how the next cool thing serves the society”. Well said, Mr President.
And if that wasn’t exciting enough, we also attended the talk “Earthgazing” where retired astronaut Ron Garan moved the room with his utterly humbling experience. For 15 years he trained to fight Russia as a pilot, only to later board the ISS with fellow Russian astronauts. He told us how the international space station is a testament to what humans can achieve when they set their differences apart and collaborate. “We were trained to fight each other, now we come together to fight the unknown together”. His message was very simple: we don’t have a plan B, we must seriously care about our home – Earth. Our life support system is on a trajectory of not being able to sustain itself and we must care for it now. Goosebumps.

And lastly, as promised:
Squeeze half a lime in a bowl, add two ripe avocados, add chopped jalapenos, onions and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt flakes, coriander and squeeze an orange slice. Mix and serve with tacos and margaritas. Welcome, y’all!