The Good, Not-So-Good, and the Life-Size Starfighter of the Galactic Empire
Our hometown is the kind of place that everyone seems to love. But for us innovation and technology junkies, Austin is particularly wonderful. Full of youth, brains, local love, and breakthrough ideas, it’s the kind of place that seems to buzz with constant energy and excitement.
Especially this time of year.
It’s been said that the population of our capital city doubles during South by Southwest (SXSW), Austin’s famous annual festival and conference for original music, independent films, and (our personal favorite) emerging technologies.
Here’s what’s fascinating us this year:
From Storm Troopers to Sheet Music, and Everything in Between
Director, Industrial Design
First of all, there’s a life-size TIE fighter in Austin…guarded by storm troopers. If that’s not worth coming to Austin for, I don’t know what is!
When you snap a picture of it, you might be happy to know that Kodak released Kodak Moments, a new social platform to bring friends and family closer together. I found this interesting because it helps contextualize your photo memories, and it makes them come alive again in a time when so many of us just stockpile our photos until we run out of space on our phones. It also brings a once-epic photography brand back into the digital discussion.
Samsung debuted an app called Hum On!. This is an amazing app that allows you to hum or sing a song, and it outputs your voice as sheet music in real-time. A fascinating educational tool for young and old musicians alike.
One of the most interesting (and haunting) discussions at SXSW Interactive was “The Secrets of Machine Learning Revealed” by Pedro Domingos, Professor at the University of Washington and author of “The Master Algorithm.” This presentation shows how we teach machines to learn, and what they teach us in return.
But of course, I have a couple favorite technologies (and M3 Design collaborations) that appeared at SXSW:
A Safe & Secure Internet
Chief Technology Officer
Security, privacy, diversity, and how we treat each other online are finally getting the attention they deserve. After last year’s gaming harassment fiasco, it’s great to see that SXSW is finally able to address the issue this year.
All of these challenges are interrelated and need to be addressed in order for the networked world to achieve its true potential. We need to figure out how we can make the Internet a safe and secure place for everyone and every “thing”.
Talking about the issues at SXSW is proof that the issues are finally getting traction. I don’t know how it will all play out, but at least we’re finally discussing the issues in a place where the people who can make a difference are all gathered!
Riffing on a New Reality
Just as AI and robotics are surging forward in concert with ubiquitous computing, so is augmented reality. At SXSW, Sony’s Future Lab released an alternative to mounting a cumbersome piece of gear to your head. Their interactive projector presents some interesting riffs on a new reality.
Government, Technology, and Mediated Reality
At this year’s SXSW, I found the involvement of several high-ranking government officials, like the president, first lady, and secretary of transportation, to be interesting. With the Apple vs. FBI privacy debate raging, and the world on the cusp of introducing driverless cars, the relationship between government and technology is more important than ever before. It is good to see policy makers actively involved in the conversation.
Also interesting: the proliferation of VR/AR technologies is apparent, but there is a clear struggle to make the transition from concept to reality. Although hailed as the next major breakthrough in human interaction, meaningful use still seems several years away. While exciting, the technology will likely be limited to gaming and entertainment in highly controlled environments—at least for the foreseeable future.
Health Abroad, Fun & Safety at Home, and a Little Something Creepy
Chief Operating Officer
Some personal favorites from SXSW:
I was also very interested in Torch, for parents who need a bit of help to limit kids’ online usage. As anyone with small children knows, it’s getting harder and harder to control what kids access online. Torch seeks to solve this issue not by using software inside the computer, as many other solutions do, but rather at the point at which the device connects to the Internet in the first place: the router. By using Torch as the main router in the home, parents can pause the signal for the entire house, or set up rules for individual kids in the house in terms of what they can and can’t access.
The device is up for pre-order now for $249, and it ships this spring.
And finally, something a bit creepy: take a look at how your life can be faked on social media.
Thync of a New Kind of Wearable
Amidst a sea of wearable tech, Thync, a SXSW Interactive Innovation Award finalist, has grabbed my attention.
Most wearables either gather some sort of data (heart rate, activity tracking, sleep tracking, blood oxygen level) or provide sensory input (visual, audible, tactile) according to the user’s desires. The tech that falls into these categories includes Fitbit, Apple Watch, Android Wear, Google Glass, Bragi Dash, Owlet Baby Monitor, etc.
Thync is unique in that it seeks to affect your mental state directly, without sensory inputs—similar to drugs. The device uses low-intensity electrical currents to nudge you into a state of your choosing: energetic, focused, relaxed, or sleepy.
And according to most tech writers fortunate to have tried Thync, it actually works. Similar neurostimulation technologies—TENS and tDCS—have been used for decades by medical professionals, which lends credence to the efficacy and safety of the technology. However, Thync is the first product of this kind being marketed directly to consumers. It is the first “digital drug,” and I believe its success may usher in a wave of like-minded products.
Sticking with Sony
It still confuses me how Sony struggles for traction in some of the markets that they once dominated. At face value, a lot of their offerings appear compelling, integrating technology into meaningful solutions that address human needs. At SXSW Interactive, their R&D lab again pulled the curtain back on some interesting projects they’re working on:
The hidden interactive tabletops would be something we, as designers, would benefit from in our environment. The ability to collaborate in an interactive manner even more quickly in groups—and even more efficiently with our clients—strikes a great chord. Collaboration is something that we constantly rely on to continually create meaningful and empathetic solutions, so there are huge benefits to new tools that enable this to be done even more efficiently. Also, anything that eliminates the need for scrubbing whiteboards gets my seal of approval!
At the same time, the N concept neckband—the sound-cocooning necklace that’s basically an Amazon Echo for the neck—perhaps provides more insight into Sony’s diminishing returns within certain tech markets. I’m all for challenging the status quo on wearables, but this isn’t the answer.
That said, Sony still gets my full attention. Maybe it’s a core brand loyalty that I cling to from the pre Apple explosion days, or maybe it’s the need to see the floundering giant get back to its full capacity. Either way, I definitely appreciated their presence at SXSW.