Spring break has come and gone in Austin, which means that we’re recovering from another amazing SXSW Interactive festival. This year for me was a year of narrative story technologies and Community. For the last several years I’ve been going to SXSW with my wife, Irma, and this year she had her own session. That meant she spent a lot of time in the women in tech tracks, and we didn’t see each other as much as usual. It’ll be interesting to read her write up, when she gets to it.
Friday – Al, Tim, BBQ, Old Friends, & 3D Printed Clothes
Friday started off with Life in the OASIS: Emulating the 1980’s in-Browser, a panel from Ready Player One author Ernest Cline (who has a new novel coming out, Armada, which I just pre-ordered), and Jason Scott, rogue librarian at the Internet Archive, talking about 80’s video games an in-browser emulators. Unfortunately due to our bus driver getting lost (transportation was a recurring pain-point at SXSW this year) I wasn’t able to make the session, but Jason, being a free-range archivist, put up the audio for all of us to enjoy.
While we didn’t have time to get to the Life in the OASIS session, we had some time to burn till the session after, so Irma and I headed to Exhibit Hall 5, which is big and always has a lot of room to plop down and get your stuff sorted. SXSW is the kind of conference where you can be just looking for a place to get your bearings and end up listening to Al Gore talk about climate change, the Pope, and his newfound optimism, which is exactly what happened.
After Al we moved up front for a presentation from perennial SXSW personality Tim Ferriss, who had a 30 minute How To Rock SXSW in 4 Hours talk, followed by QA. It’s always weird for me to see Tim at SXSW. I was on the first row of his first SXSW talk on the tiny Day Stage promoting the about to be released 4 Hour Work Week, way back in 2007. To say our paths diverged would be an interesting understatement. The main points of Tim’s talk were: Don’t be a jerk and treat everyone like they could make your career (because they probably can),. He had some hangover cure suggestions (eat avocados before you go party), and reminded all the introverts to take the time to breathe.
One anecdote he told on the treating everyone well point was from one of his early CESes. He spent most of his time in the bloggers lounge (a good place to meet people), and while everyone was trying to get the attention of Robert Scoble, he chatted up the lady checking people in. Eventually he made a comment about Robert, and she said, “Oh, you should totally talk to him. He’s my husband, let me give you a ring back in San Francisco and we’ll have lunch.” So yea, you never know who people are. I was standing in line at a session later in the conference and started talking to the lady next to me, who turned out to be the head of innovation at Intuit.
After Tim it was time for lunch, and we ended up at Ironworks BBQ. They have a $16.45 3 meat sampler plate (beef rib, sausage, and brisket), and well… a picture’s worth a thousand words…
Our buddy Matt Sanders (formerly a Polycot, then an HPer, and now at Librato) was in town from San Francisco for the conference, and joined us to indulge in smoked meat. We ended up eating at Ironworks at least 3 more times, which was kind of expensive, but fast and good.
After lunch Matt and I headed over to the new JW Marriott to a panel from Dutch fashion designer Pauline van Dongen titled Ready to Wear? Body Informed 3D Printed Fashion. This session was a perfect example of what makes SXSW such a unique conference: It’s a subject that I’m curious about, but one I’d never go to a conference specifically to see. Pauline was wearing some of her tech-enabled fashions (a shirt with solar cells embedded in it), and talked about how fashion meets technology and how often in technology we design for the static (interlocking shapes), not the organic. She profiled two of her projects, one a sleeve that morphs based on the wearer’s movement, and the other a neck ruff that uses electrically contracting wire to ‘breathe’ while worn. The challenges she faced (48 hour print cycles, unpredictability of material behavior) and insights discovered were really interesting, and it was one of the panels I kept thinking about most over the next few days.
After this panel I wandered through the job fair for a bit, which has expanded significantly in the last year. It was interesting to see Target and Apple looking for candidates at SXSW.
Saturday – Storytelling Machines, Future Crime, New Parents in Tech
First thing Saturday morning was my session with Jon Lebkowsky: Machines That Tell Stories. We had a great turnout, and there are notes from the discussion at the link. Looking over the schedule, storytelling and storytelling systems were a very hot topic. I was talking to Deus Ex Machina (an interactive theater project) producer Robert Matney later that it felt like the story zeitgeist erupted out of nowhere, and the flood of sessions made for a very interesting conference. The discussion was really interesting, and it was gratifying to hear that there was a lot of cross-pollination between attendees. I even heard that people were still connecting at the airport on their way home.
Chris Hurd, one of my friends and the guy behind DVinfo.net, gave me a tip one time from his years working big trade shows like NAB: The best way to keep a spring in your step at a long conference is to change your socks in the middle of the day. So after leading our session, and stopping into the 3M booth, we went back to the car, dumped our stuff, and I changed my socks. We had a long day ahead of us, and it was definitely worth it.
Next I went to a session titled Future Crimes From the Digital Underworld by Marc Goodman. It’s always interesting to see the people who’ve given a talk a lot of times versus people who are presenting the material for the first time. Marc’s obviously really practiced at this talk, complete with jokes, audience-call-outs, and what have you. It’s a fun talk, but the net-net is that everything in security is terrible, and it’s just going to get worse with trillions of IoT devices. I didn’t need Marc to tell me that. I have Taylor Swift.
After that was Irma’s meetup: New Parents in Tech. She had an interesting turnout, with only one other woman (there was a lot of competition for the women technologist this year, with a strong moms in tech panel opposite), but a lot of dads. Two product guys from Fisher Price showed up, too, and I had an interesting discussion with them about Baby’s Musical Hands (Clara’s first app) and iPad cases (they don’t sell many anymore, possibly due to the kid market saturating with hand-me-downs). After a good discussion, it was on to…
Saturday/Sunday – Community
Community! And Harmontown! And Dan Harmon!
Ok, I’ll admit it. Community is my biggest takeaway from SXSW. It’s my favorite TV show, the only thing I watch obsessively. I’ve seen every episode, most of them a half dozen times. I follow the actors (even the lesser-known ones) on twitter. Fanboy = Me.
Yahoo! Screen picked up Community last year after NBC didn’t renew it. The switch from broadcast to streaming distribution made it perfect SXSW fodder, especially after the Harmontown documentary premiered at SXSW Film last year. Yahoo! pulled out the big guns, though, and beyond just having Dan show up to talk about the switch, they brought the whole cast, and premiered the 1st episode of the new season a few days early for the fans. It was epic.
We had great seats for Harmontown, and were next to the stage when they brought out the cast and showed the season premier. When they showed the episode everybody sat down on the floor, and in one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been in the middle of, we all sang along kumbaya style to the theme song.
The episode was great, and we had a wonderful time.
The next morning, after a panel I’ll talk about in a second, was a SXSW panel with the Community cast. Everyone was there again, and there was a great discussion about the show. For my money, it was even more interesting than Community’s previous Paleyfest discussions, probably due to the fact that there wasn’t a real moderator, just Dan Harmon asking the cast questions. We had front row seats for that one, too.
Some notes for Community fans:
- In the QA someone mentioned Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design as their favorite (it’s my favorite too, I was the weirdo in the audience who applauded at that), and Dan told a story about how they essentially threw out the last 1/3rd of the episode (the original ending involved the teachers creating the conspiracy) while they were shooting. The final scene didn’t get scripted until they were in the study room blocking it off. They had NBC Standards and Practices on the phone, because there’s a lot of gunplay, and they were describing it, and finally the person from Standards and Practices said ‘Is there any way you can make it about gun safety?’ And if you’ve seen the episode, that’s how the ending happened. Lots of Community episodes come together at the last minute.
- The speech Ben Chang gives in Analysis of Cork-Based Networking (about the character being a real person, but just being portrayed as crazier and crazier) was lifted nearly verbatim from an email Ken Jeong wrote to Dan Harmon about the character. When Ken was performing it, he teared up (those are real tears) because he was so touched.
- Alison Brie’s contract is up this season, we’ll see if she’s back if they make a movie or Season 7.
- In discussing the longer episodes now that they aren’t constrained by NBC commercial breaks, Joel McHale noted that The Dick Van Dyke Show episodes were 29 minutes, which made me think that there’s an interesting comparison between The Dick Van Dyke Show as Community and I Love Lucy as The Big Bang Theory.
Ok, so that’s Community. It was great. Watch it on Yahoo! Screen.
Sunday – Transmedia Storytelling, Bot Authors, & Makers
Before the morning Community panel was a session titled Worlds Without Boundaries: Books, Games, Films, with James Frey (author and media maker) and Jon Hanke (architect behind Google’s Ingress game). It was a fascinating discussion about media that crosses boundaries. James mentioned he was heavily inspired as a kid by the book Masquerade, which included puzzles and a treasure hunt in the real world. In his series, Endgame, there’s a puzzle pointing to keys that unlock a chest in the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas holding $.5, $1, and $1.5 million dollars in gold (per book, respectively). They’re doing an app with Niantic Labs (Google), and they’re planning films. It’s an interesting product development scheme: Have a stable of creatives come up with a world. Sell some of the rights (film, TV), partner to do some products (games), and do others in house (books, novellas).
After the Community panel I spent some time in the SXSW trade show. General themes this year were lots of Japanese hardware startups (on Kickstarter, natch), lots of countries, and almost no hosting or cloud booths (save for Softlayer). A lot more music, and a little ergonomic furniture. Overall a less interactive-heavy trade show than years gone by. I’m not entirely sure why that was, but there you go. Wordpress didn’t come with their great t-shirts this year, so I guess I’ll have to actually go to the store to buy my clothes. I did manage to pick up a new Olloclip, though, and even got to see it built in front of me.
In the afternoon I made it over to Automated Insights panel When Robots Write The News, What Will Humans Do?, moderated by James Kotecki, Automated Insights’ PR guy. This was an great discussion between Robbie Allen, the CEO of Automated Insights, and Lou Ferrara, a VP from Associated Press. Automated Insights’ software produces AP stories in sports and stock reporting from raw data, and it was interesting to hear their discussion about what will be automated and where human value really lies. Automated Insights thing is producing one billion pieces of content for one person each, which I think everyone can agree is where a large part of the content we consume is headed.
After the Automated Insights panel I headed over to SXSW Create, the free maker area of the conference. While I was there I got to try out Lumo, a new interactive projector for kids that’s about to hit Indiegogo. More on that later.
The Gaming Expo next door to Create was as crazy as ever, and really starting to outgrow the space they have for it. The only larger space downtown is the Convention Center, though, which puts them in kind of a bind. VR headsets were everywhere (almost always accompanied by lines of people waiting to use them), and it was good to see indie games like That Dragon, Cancer represented.
Monday – API Fails, Narrative Systems, Non-Linear Story Environments, Enchanted Objects, Home Projector Installations, & BBQ Science
The next day I tried to get into Wynn Netherland’s talk Secrets to Powerful APIs, but I was late, so Matt and I couldn’t fulfill our tweet-promise.
Instead, Matt and I went to the MedTech expo, and saw an interesting startup doing a small wireless body temp monitor for babies (slap a bandage over it, battery’s good for a month), some interesting sleep trackers (lot of quantified self folks at SXSW) and of course Withings with their smart watch whose batteries work for 8 months.
After that I headed to Technology, Story, and the Art of Performance by Elena Parker (who came to our Machines That Tell Stories session and had some of the best insights) and Michael Monello from Campfire, a division of Sapient Nitro that specializes in unique interactive experiences.
Elena and Michael’s presentation was one of the most meaty of the sessions I attended, full of helpful, hard-won insights into interactive projects. Slides are available here, and audio is here.. They showcased three: Deja View, a project for Infinity where actors you see on screen talk to you through the phone (dynamic video branching and voice recognition), Hunted, an ARG-like that used some clever magic tricks to make users think they were being controlled, and a project for the From Dusk Till Dawn TV series, where players could call in and talk to the character Santanico Pandemonium and she would try to recruit them for her cult (branching narrative, voice recognition).
Some of my major takeaways from the presentation:
- MaxMax: Elena talked about how while in games you program for MinMax (system constantly minimizes the players chances while maximizes the games chances, by attacking the player, moving enemies toward them, etc), in interactive story experiences you want to optimize for MaxMax, where you give the users as much of a chance of progressing as you can. They’re likely only going to experience it once (replay value not being high, except for people who want to understand how the system works), so work as hard as you can to make sure they succeed.
- Embrace Genre: When you’re giving people a new and unfamiliar experience, ground them in tropes and genre conventions they already understand. That way they have something to hold on to.
- 3 Act Structure: Use the standard exposition, rising action, climax story structure. Everybody understands it, it works, if you’re re-inventing all the other wheels, don’t re-invent that one.
- Magic!: There’s an interesting cross-over with the magic community. They worked with a magician to design some of their interactive tricks (powered, in the end, by people sitting in a call center). Fooling the brain is what they do, and is what delights our users.
- Don’t Branch: Traditional Choose Your Own Adventure stories use a branching structure, which leads to some short experiences and some long ones. That’s a negative for experiences you want users to fully enjoy, so instead of branches, create a looping structure where each act breaks into sections, but they all come back at the end. Something like this: -=-=-=-
- Test: When you’re testing an interactive narrative, write out only the main 80% line first, and test it on 5 people. This will validate your assumptions about how most people will view it, and won’t waste your time creating alternate paths if your base assumptions are broken. Once you’ve passed 5, write out the rest and test on 50 people (I think this was how it went, they should post the slides soon) to validate your overall script. Then run a production beta test on as many people as you can to get data for all the subtle things you wouldn’t expect.
After this panel I kept with the story theme and went to the Stories Asunder: Tales for the Internet of Things panel, with Lisa Woods from the Austin Interactive Installation meetup, and her team that produced Live at the Dead Horse Drum, an iBeacon powered non-linear location-based story experience on the east side of Austin. Also joining them was Klasien van de Zandschulp from Lava Lab, who’s created some really fascinating geo-fence/iBeacon based non-linear story experiences in the Netherlands, including one under development where inhabitants of museum paintings create a social network the user can browse (think HogwartsPaintingBook). They had some really interesting examples, and I hope to experience some of their work soon.
On the way to my next panel I walked by the SXSW bookstore, and noticed that David Rose whose book Enchanted Objects I’d done a double-take on a few days before was going to be signing it just about then. So I bought a copy and a few minutes later David showed up, and we had a great 10 minute long conversation about projection mapped interactive art objects. David teaches at the MIT media lab, in addition to a lot of other stuff, and his book has moved straight to the top of my to-read stack. It sounds exactly like a subject I’ve posted about here before, and something that feels like it’s moving from Bruce Sterling design fiction to real world product very quickly.
After talking to David I headed to the Storytelling Engines for Smart Environments panel, which had Meghan Athavale (aka Meg Rabbit) from Lumo Play on it. Meg’s been doing interactive projection installations in Museums for many years, and has had the question ‘Can I get this in my house?’ posed more than a few times. Recently component prices have been dropping, so she’s designed the Lumo Interactive Projector, a projector based toy for kids, and is about to run an Indiegogo for it. Meg’s the kind of entrepreneur you can’t help but root for. She came to SXSW by herself, set up a booth in Create, and is trying to drum up as much excitement as she can. I really hope her Indiegogo is a big hit.
After Storytelling Engines I headed over to the GE BBQ Research Center with Matt and Irma for some free BBQ. It was good, but Irma didn’t care for it. Research accomplished!
Tuesday – AR/VR, Moonshots, New Assets, Space Cleaners, & Happy Bruce
Tuesday morning I hit the Mixed Reality Habitats: The New Wired Frontier panel presented by IEEE. My biggest ‘wow’ takeaway, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what Microsoft’s up to with Hololens or those Magic Leap guys (light fields?) with their headset, was from Todd Richmond, Director at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, who said his group felt that most people would be wearing headsets (Google Glass-like or Hololens AR like, or Oculus Rift VR like) 8 hours a day for work in 5-10 years. When someone says something like that, I think it’s time to take notice. Consider the headsets of today as the original iPhone. Think about how far we’ve come in the 6 years since that was released.
After that I watched Astro Teller speak about Moonshots at Google [x]. His main point was that they always strive to fail quickly and get real-life feedback as fast as possible. He talked about a bunch of wild projects they’re working on like delivery drones, internet by high-altitude self-driving balloons, kite-based wind power, the self-driving car, and others. With each he emphasized how failure early lead to faster learning.
I hit a session entitled How to Rob a Bank: Vulnerabilities of New Money, with some fairly impressive speakers. Their main point seemed to be that your personal information is an emerging asset class that you should be concerned about. That just like your dollars in a bank, your purchase history and address and Facebook posts have value, and we don’t really know how to protect that yet.
On our way back through the trade show Irma and I ran into Astroscale, a company from Singapore started by some Japanese ex-finance guys (follow me, here). They’ve hired engineering resources to design a satellite that will de-orbit space debris. Imagine that your $150 million dollar satellite is going to be impacted by a bit of out-of-control space junk. You pay these guys $10 million, and then go find that space junk, attach their micro-satellite to it, and de-orbit it before it can crash into you. And they’re running a promotional time capsule project with Pocari Sweat and National Geographic to collect well wishes from kids and send them via a SpaceX launch to the moon. So yea, 30 years after Reagan’s Star Wars and Brilliant Pebbles, and here’s what we’ve got. I’m surprised it isn’t on Kickstarter.
The end of SXSW is always Bruce Sterling’s talk, and this year was no different. Bruce was kind of happy this year, and was almost channeling Temple Grandin in appearance, but happy Bruce isn’t always most interesting Bruce. If you’d like to give his talk a listen, it’s up on SoundCloud. Hopefully next year he’ll have some tales from Casa Jasmina to share.
So that was it, SXSW Interactive 2015. 5 days of old friends, new friends, stories, the future, BBQ, and space junk. I can’t wait to see you next year!