SXSW 2013
go, go, go

My very first SXSW: What I've learned, plus some complementary gadgets and apps

What I've learned at my first SXSW (apps & gadgets included)

austin photo: news_matt_tina eisenberg
Photo by Matt McGinnis

This is my first SXSW ever. Ever. I went to high school in San Antonio and went to college at the University of Texas, and for eight long years, I avoided the annual music, technology and film conference because the very thought of it exhausted me.

I may be in the “prime of my youth” in my early-20s and eating beautiful, delicately curated corporate vegetables from Whole Foods Market, but eight days (eight days!) of panels, showcases, screenings, meetups and coming-upons sound like something someone dreamed up in a very special, dotcom-era hell.

But this year was different. This year, I was credentialed to cover the film and interactive portions of the conference (blessed be my editors who had the foresight to know that I possess neither the stamina or patience for standing in sweaty, crowded bars listening to bands I’m not really cool enough to know), and so far, with Interactive coming to a close, it hasn’t actually been that bad.

It’s sort of like ACL, but more spread out and instead of everywhere smelling like weed, everywhere smells like coalescing meat scents or urine. There are people everywhere, all the time, every day. Most of them, at least during the peak of Interactive over the weekend, are from out of town and seem genuinely excited or are easily excitable — these are the cool nerds.

Also, they have a lot of money. And a lot of them are here to make more money! There wasn’t a greater flex of the technological moneymaking muscle than in the expo show, inside the main hall of the Austin Convention Center. It was world conference in there, booth upon rows of booths from countries around the world trying to shill their Next Greatest Thing.

Some of what I saw during Interactive was neat (more on that later), plenty was just amusing and most was either not intended for general consumers (business class enterprise data management solutions! No thanks) or just...weird.

Interactive also leaves me with a metaphorical black eye: I was duped more than once into these slick presenters’ wordplay, blew more cash than I should have and perhaps worst of all, I remain convinced that the apps/devices/concepts I bought into (one quite literally) are good ideas.

Take Mophie, a case for iPhones and Android phones that has changed everything for me. Snap this guy on, and when your phone battery dies (like it does at the worst, most inconvenient times), you flip a switch on the back, and suddenly you’re charging on the go.

It’s an extra battery designed into a phone case (so it’s not really all that clever), but as someone who uses his phone often enough that it’s almost always nearly dead by 4 p.m. most days, it’s going to be a saving grace.  

The sequence of events that led to me purchasing the $80 case for my iPhone perhaps typifies the worst, most consumerist American tendencies I possess: my friend, also a phone battery-killing journalist, bought one, so I wanted one.

That can be seen as legitimate recommendation from a peer and colleague, but I still feel weak from having given in. When the jerky, but charismatic (aren’t they all?) presenter snapped the grey demo case on my phone, it was all over.

The $80 didn’t burn too much since I was able to subsidize the price of the case with earlier foolish, impulsive purchase I made: a digital and Sunday print edition subscription to The New York Times. It was $16 a month for six months! I have vested stake in the future of journalism! Ugh. Whatever. I did it for the $25 Visa gift card and the glossy Sunday magazine.

But there were a few things I learned about during Interactive that didn’t end with me buying something (though I’m sure those guys wouldn’t have minded): I like Rocket Lawyer, a subscription online repository for navigating legal matters, including filing documents and speaking with actual, vetted attorneys.

And I found the idea behind Japanese Hatsune Miku, a singing voice synthesizer that produces digital vocals for any lyrics, useful. In the demo showed to me, you can literally type whatever words you want into the system and it spits out a perfect voice singing those exact words.

It’s coming to the U.S. and I can see it as an application for musicians looking to try out lyrics without needing a dedicated vocalist. The weird, animated aqua-haired mascot (can people be mascots?), is an unfortunate, oddly sexualized distraction.

And finally, there’s the terribly-titled 1 World Online, an app that reflects perhaps the biggest trend to come out of Interactive this year: big data. From the outset, it’s just a poll app, but one that culls expert opinions to weigh on both sides of the question.

They even provide links to news articles with data points for a sort of fact checking and rabbit hole element. Voters can see how their voter lines up with demographic data. It’s intriguing and I could see it being addictive to scroll through how your vote matches up with others.

But now that the Interactive has ended and nice, accent-think Big Brains have stopped pouncing on me the second I step out of the press room, I can refocus my attention to the brilliant (or maybe not so brilliant) films at the conference. Or try playing the insane RSVP game to see Justin Timberlake.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about SXSW so far? SXSW is not interested in you catching your breath. It’s go, go, go or get run over.