So we’ve made it back at last after a marathon journey to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest Interactive.
Two of us had previously been out in 2010, so this was a good opportunity see which new trends and ideas are coming through and those that are still on recycle. Now that we’ve soaked it all in, talked, debated and mulled it over, four clear themes emerged from SXSW 2012 that offer insight into the current and future state of digital/tech/interactive.
The Rise and Rise of Gaming
Jane McGonigal, author of “Reality is Broken” and poster girl for gaming research, kicked things off with a scene-setting keynote. If you’re familiar with her work, you’ll be well aware of her zeal in promoting gaming as an often overlooked and misunderstood aspect of human behavior. She rattled off fact after fact, citing multiple studies, to underline her message that games, and particularly gamification of all kinds of tasks, engage, motivate and connect people; even to the extent that there are measurable health benefits. This thinking permeated all the way through SXSW, shooting off into topics like geolocation, augmented reality and peer to peer learning, and was officially rubber stamped by the announcement that SXSW 2013 will have its very own Gaming conference.
Convergence & IPTV
This isn’t exactly a new idea, but it’s one that’s finally coming of age, and that was readily apparent across talks, panel discussions and product demonstrations – from big players like Samsung through to start ups like Clik. Film makers and broadcasters lined up to talk about the creative opportunities offered by HTML5 and the associated open source approach to development. The audience-building power of interactive content coupled with the capacity to create real legacy in it was highlighted by the producers of the BBC transmedia project “The Code“. It’s broadcast figures were significantly boosted with iPlayer views inspired by their online code-cracking games. Meanwhile, as Samsung’s latest generation of Smart TVs showed off their built in Kinect-style gesture control, App Store and web browsing tech, it was clear that they are putting their money on device convergence – almost a return to single-screening.
Social isn’t being heralded with quite the enthusiam as it was in 2010. The feeling is, perhaps, that it’s too often taken for granted or bolted on without thought. Soundcloud founder David Haynes underlined the importance of curation in maintaining a passionate user base, and this was echoed by many others who pointed to the noise in social media that can create what Amber Case called ‘information jet lag’. Steven Levy extolled the virtues of good journalism in the digital age, and Instagram was often cited as a best-in-class example of both UX and well managed content curation.
The future of human/computer interaction
Perhaps most grandiose of the themes that connected speakers and debates at SXSW is the the idea that we are on the verge of a new era in human / computer interaction. Ray Kurzweil, tech culture’s very own Yoda, spoke with barely disguised excitement about the exponential rate of development across all fields of science, bringing forward the predicted date for his ‘Singularity’ milestone (when computers are as smart as people) to 2029. In her keynote, Amber Case posited that we are moving from Liquid (touchscreen-based) interfaces to Air Interfaces which we control with gesture, voice and even our physical location. She showed some of her research into Invisible Buttons – real-world places marked out by digital, geolocated perimeters – that react as users pass through them. Other, more immediately tangible, examples of new thinking in these areas came through in discussions about the death of the skeuomorph and many references to the iOS app ‘Clear‘ as a landmark in progressive user interface design.