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The main technological discoveries of SXSW 2018

South by Southwest, the whirlwind that concluded its 2018 edition on March 17, can leave you with a mental hangover worse than any set of tequila shots or overdosing on Texas tacos. It’s not just the sprawl and the length of time it stretches (10-11 days depending on if you count lead-up and post-game events), but the promise SXSW makes good on every year: To throw lots of ideas at you. 

Processing these ideas and lessons, hot takes and deep dives alike from panels, online chatter and all the talk that happens while networking, takes a little bit of time and distance. And, no matter how hard you hit the events of SXSW, you’ll still only have an incomplete picture, a narrow view of a multi-faceted experience machine. 

Here’s a few of my takeaways from the tech/Interactive part of South by Southwest based on what I saw this year: 

Brands co-opted #metoo and diversity topics, and that’s not a bad thing

As an event, South by Southwest has been beating the drum about diversity in its content for years. As expected, this year was no different, with inclusion a major topic of discussion across keynotes, panels and meetups. But this was the year when it felt like the brands around SXSW, the ones who put on parties and adjacent non-official programming, were fully embracing these issues as well. There was Austin-based Bumble’s gigantic “Empowering Connections” multi-day event, and many other side panels with names such as “2018 & Beyond: Women and Inclusion in Technology,” part of the Ethereal Lounge from ConsenSys, a blockchain software company.

Other events explored race, workplace gender issues and social issues that wouldn’t have been out of place as official SXSW programming. Brands worked harder this year to give visitors to their events something to think about, a far cry from when SXSW parties consisted mostly of live music, free food and booze. A more cynical person might suggest this is just brands cashing in on hot-button issues, but the execution seemed solid and sincere in most cases.

Bigger is not always better

The most consistent complaint I used to hear about SXSW, particularly from around 2010-2013 when it was growing at an annual rate of about 25 percent to 33 percent, was that the event was getting too crowded and too overwhelming to navigate. We used to talk about whether SXSW would ever institute a cap on registration, how it would grow without enough hotel space in downtown Austin to accommodate its needs, and in one absurd moment, whether it would ever simply move out of Austin (to San Antonio?). 

The buildout of new hotels downtown including the newly opened Fairmont and the rise of Airbnb and HomeAway have helped with the lodging crunch. Growth has decreased to the lower end of single digits the past few years. And, sorry San Antonio, but our breakfast taco game is still strong.

We won’t know for a while what official attendance was at SXSW, but anecdotally, many this year reported less crowded spaces, less congested traffic and an overall feel of a more spread-out, better organized event that didn’t feel quite so jam-packed. For many who actually attend every year, it felt like a welcome change of pace.

VR, blockchain and AI are here to stay

Tech ideas at South by Southwest can sometimes take a while to properly percolate. You might hear about a hot trend such as mobile/desktop convergence and have to wait a while to see it actually come to fruition. Sometimes you stop hearing about a technology altogether and realize it just didn’t happen.

This year, virtual reality came roaring back with a very good showing at SXSW’s Virtual Cinema. VR and augmented reality are still novel technologies looking for their mainstream breakout moment (”Pokemon Go” was the closest so far), but they continued to make the case at SXSW that they’re not going away. (It didn’t hurt that one of the best events at South by Southwest this year was the world premiere of the VR-themed Steven Spielberg movie, “Ready Player One.”)

But the two technologies that probably generated the most actual head among the tech set this year were blockchain topics (including, of course, all manner of cryptocurrency discussion), and anything to do with artificial intelligence, across smart devices, bit data, video games and, if you’re Elon Musk, your worst nightmares.

Austin is a great, broken place to talk about transportation solutions

Last year, Austin was waging a battle with ride-hailing services Lyft and Uber, companies that suspended their operations in town, leaving South by Southwest 2017 with a patchwork of alternate app services. This year, the two companies were back, and several also-ran services were gone. But Austin’s getting-around solutions during such a big event shows the world our mass-transit woes: very limited rail, buses that get caught in the Friday afternoon traffic crunch, and inconsistent sidewalks and bike lanes that make bike riding and even walking a challenge sometimes.

SXSW has become a destination for mayors across the country and the Cities Summit is one place where they can talk about how transportation fits into the larger tapestry of municipal issues. Several transportation startups were also featured in this year’s Accelerator competition. (Transportation winner? New York-based carpool startup GoKid.) 

For me, the most welcome trend was seeing a new generation of motorized scooters and foldable electric bikes being used downtown. To promote its upcoming bike-sharing service, LimeBike showed off some electric scooters that were a common sight downtown during SXSW.

And Pasadena-based URB-E told me it sold its entire SXSW inventory of foldable electric bikes at SXSW for its third year here. Seeing these buzzy little bikes tool across the Lady Bird Lake bridge was a welcome sight. I think the next year or two are going to see many more Austinites forego dealing with traffic and parking and supplement their car use with some electric-powered last-mile transportation. The URB-E seems like one good option for that.

Something surprising and unplanned will always overtake SXSW conversation 

Some years, it’s a natural disaster such as the Japan tsunami of March 2011. Other years it’s a marketing gaffe such as the “Homeless hotspots” of 2012. We didn’t know it when SXSW started, but by the end, the story that overtook South by Southwest was Austin entering into a terrifying period of package bombings that began on March 2 and continued during and after SXSW.

Against the backdrop of Austin’s biggest cultural event of the year, both locals and visitors were beginning to question the surreal nature of what was happening not far from downtown Austin. After SXSW wrapped up, discussion of it was quickly put aside as the crimes become a national story.

Spending a lot of money can still win SXSW

Who won South by Southwest 2018? Anyone who got something positive out of the experience, really. But if you’re wondering what was the most talked-about, successfully executed single thing at SXSW, you could argue that HBO’s massively ambitious “Westworld” experience, dubbed “SXSWestworld” was worth every penny of whatever the network spent.

Big, bold, mysterious and well-executed, it generated tremendous buzz for the new season of television. Will that translate into a surge in viewers, making the show the next “Game of Thrones?” Who knows, but it was far and away the most discussed thing at SXSW this year with an attention to detail that went above and beyond what even ardent fans of the show could have expected. And it looked very, very expensive.

Omar L. Gallaga