SXSW (belated review)

A few weeks ago I took the opportunity to visit Austin for SXSW 2011. With the conference being a darling of the tech media, I thought I’d sample the whole thing, SXSW Interactive, Film and Music. I may blog about music on my gig blog so this blog will concentrate on the Interactive and Film element.

This was my first trip to SXSW, my first trip to Austin, and my first trip to Texas. With no direct flight to Austin, I decided to visit Houston before travelling the short hop to Austin. This gave me the opportunity to take a ‘Level 9′ tour of the Johnson Space Center. The tour is a ‘private’ tour for 12 visitors. You’re driven by a tour guide in a minivan around the NASA campus and visit areas closed to the standard tour. The tour doesn’t follow a fixed path and the tour guide decides on the day which areas to take you to. It’s relatively expensive but if you’re interested in space exploration, it’s definitely worth while. During our tour we had the chance to visit their planetary habitat research lab and the amazing floatation training tank that contained a full size Shuttle and International Space Station.

NASA's floatation training tank

NASA's floatation training tank

NASA’s floatation tank

As it was Rodeo season, I thought I’d sample some Texas culture. I’ve never really understood this side of American culture. It seems so tacky and brash. So I was outside of my comfort zone. I can’t say I was won over, but there’s no denying that the organisers put on a good show. Not only do you get the rodeo, but there’s a whole circus of events that happen around the event, with an impressive farming related trade show and a full performance from a popular country star. Though I had to duck out after 20 minutes of the performance to preserve my sanity. Country music, or at least the popular side is just awful.

Houston Rodeo and Livestock show

Austin, Texas

The Texas of Austin couldn’t be more different to the Texas of the rodeo. Austin is an interesting place and a place I’d love to visit again. Arriving at the airport you’re greeted by signs saying ‘keep Austin weird’ and it feels more chilled than I would have expected a Texan city to be. It’s kind of like a spread out (and sunny) Camden. You would never guess that this city was in a state that voted for George Bush.

Austin

Austin State Capitol
Austin State Capitol Building

Meditating on 6th street

'Keep Austin Weird'

SXSWi

The thing that hits you about SXSWi is how big it is. Apparently the attendance figures for Interactive were 30% up on last year with about 20000 attendees. ‘Interactive’ has now outgrown ‘Music’. With all the big tech blogs pimping SXSWi, it’s easy to see why it’s now seen as the place to release your new hip company. But based on my impressions of this year, not only has SXSWi outgrown the Austin Convention Center, but it’s reaching the point where it’s in danger of becoming more ‘hype’ than substance.

SXSW Friday
Early on the first day before it got busy

On the surface, the conference looked like it was going to be very interesting. There appeared to be a number of interesting technical and education related sessions. As this was a self-financed trip, I wasn’t tied to attending Interactive sessions, so planned to attend a number of film and documentary premiers (and sit in a few bars drinking beer).

Unlike most conferences I’ve attended, sessions at SXSWi are split into ‘solo’, ‘duo’, ‘panels’ and Keynotes. In my opinion, far too many sessions are panels. Some worked really well, most didn’t. In some panel sessions presenters appeared to be more interested in marketing their companies, with little discussion between panel members and leaving no time for Q&A.

‘Game Layer’

You may have seen some of the press getting excited over a keynote by Seth Priebatsh (SCVNGR CEO) on the ‘game layer’. The keynote explored how adding a ‘game’ element to life could help solve inherent problems in society. This ‘game layer’ could use game mechanics such as ‘achievements’ and ‘levelling-up’ to encourage task based solutions to the world’s problems.

Starting with education, Seth explained how education was broken but everything was ok because he had the solution, the ‘game layer’. By removing grading from the education system and building up achievements, you could fix education. Although he made some interesting points, this guy was more hype than understanding. Many educators already practice (by his definition) a ‘game layer’ (especially at primary level). The problems with the education system isn’t just the grading systems, but a combination of problems such as curriculum and assessment design that fails to engage and support students, discipline issues, lack of support from parents, social mobility, etc. In other words, far more complicated than his view. As a Learning Technolgist working in a University I’ve used ‘game mechanics’ in education. They’re a valuable tool to support learning but they’re not the whole solution.

Not content with fixing the education system, he then moved on to global warming! Since this guy admitted he’s yet to make the ‘game layer’ work for location-based check-ins, maybe he should concentrate on fixing his easier problem first, before moving on to solving the world’s problems.

This type of session was indicative of many of SXSWi sessions. Many SXSW sessions are personality driven. One hour each day is given to keynotes, with few other sessions running in parallel. So if you’re not interested in them, it’s time to hit the excellent trade show, find food, or grab a beer. Most technical conferences overpack the days with sessions. That’s definitely not the case with SXSW. In my opinion a few more parallel sessions wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Felicia Day @ SXSW
The lovely Felicia Day's keynote

The antidote to Priebatsh’s session was a panel on ‘design for education’. An interesting panel that explored pedagogical driven curriculum, centred around the student. The three presenters limited their ‘pitches’ to 8 minutes and this gave ample time for an excellent Q&A. The most impressive aspect was Denis Littky presentation about the schools he helped setup that use a student driven curriculum model. Often set up in poor areas, these schools have improved attendance and graduation rates by switching from the traditional fixed curriculum model to one that uses a child’s interests as the framework for introducing curriculum content. It was great to see somebody talk with passion who was trying to make a difference.

Design for Education

Web & Mobile

On the technical front, there were quite a few sessions on mobile ‘apps’ and html5. Microsoft gave an interesting presentation that explained some of their thinking behind the new Windows Mobile interface. Although I’m an iPhone and Mac user, I really hope Windows Mobile succeeds. I don’t think Microsoft has received enough recognition of the work their interface team has done with the new OS. (and with the XBOX OS). Personally, I think it’s the most important Microsoft release in 20 years. The team responsible have clearly broken away from the ‘Windows’ mindset that strangles Microsoft’s creativity. The presenter explained how the new design is based on the ‘Swiss Design’ movement that emphasises the clarity of information using grids and clean typography, something I think they’ve managed to achieve. Whatever you think of the new OS, the team should be applauded for trying something different.

Windows Phone comparison
Windows Phone comparison

HTML5 browser support

Another interesting session was a session on HTML5 standards support in major web browsers. With Google, Microsoft, Opera and Mozilla in attendance. Microsoft used SXSWi as the launch pad for IE9. So this was an opportunity to hear views on the future of standards-based web development. Although there were differences between the four vendors, it was good to see Microsoft on-board with ‘standards’.

Some issues still remain. Microsoft are standing firm on IE9 for Vista and Windows 7. The excuses frankly were transparent. Their argument being that IE9 is hardware accelerated so wouldn’t work on XP. No one agreed with this and obviously Opera and Google are no slouch on XP so easily rebuked this position. They also refused to move to Google’s forced download model. As you would expect, they feel that this makes life difficult for admins. I think the message is clear. You will be developing hacks for IE7 & 8 for a long time to come.

There was also discussion about the VIDEO tag and codec support. Again, there’s a clear split, with Microsoft backing Apple on H264, Mozilla refusing to pay the license rights and Opera sitting on the fence. Google continued to argue that their codec was the best option.

NOSQL

There were a number of sessions on ‘NoSQL’. I managed to catch one and as expected there was no mention of NSF, despite other platforms such as CouchDB being mentioned. The session was an early session (for SXSW) and reasonably attended. So there’s a definite interest in non sql database options.It seems IBM is missing an opportunity to push NFS into a new growing marketplace.

To be honest, IBM’s presence at SXSW was ‘low key’. Although they did sponsor some tracks, Microsoft was a main sponsor of this part of the conference. Although the ‘Smarter Planet’ people were there, and I think the Watson people were there, there wasn’t a single IBM sign in the main conference centre. Which is a pity because there were so many ‘social business’ people in attendance. Only Apple had a lower profile. Despite Apple Macs out numbering PCs by at least a factor of 10 to 1, Apple were missing from SXSW. Despite this, by the Saturday, Apple managed to be the name on everyone’s lips. In a genius piece of marketing, Apple opened a ‘pop-up’ store a few blocks away from SXSW to coincide with the release of the iPad2, with queues snaking around the block. Amazingly, they managed to keep the store stocked throughout the festival and by the close of SXSWi there were hundred of the new device floating around the conference (or usually being held above the owner’s head to capture photos)

Apple's Popup SXSW iPad shop
Apple Popup store at SXSW

Startups

Much of SXSWi’s press comes from the number of startups that launch their products. It was interesting to see how these startups pushed their products and the number of people it attracted who hoped to make contacts to help them launch their own product. There were even people standing outside the conference centre with billboards asking for developers and investors.

The SXSW Accelerator presented by Microsoft’s BizSpark, was an interesting way for these companies to pitch themselves to prospective investors. I managed to catch one of the sessions. Each company is given a few minutes to present a concise overview of their startup offering, followed by questions from a panel. After the first day, 32 finalists are whittled down to 12, who then competed the following day for the overall prize. About 3rd of the room was filled with investors. So it was worthwhile, even if you didn’t win.

Too much to do

Although I’d argue the should be more technical sessions, there was alway something to do at SXSW. As a platinum badge holder, I was able to attend all aspects of the Festival. Running alongside SXSWi is the SXSW film festival. Before heading to Austin I’d identified that there were two documentaries I wanted to see, Senna and Sound It Out. With SXSWi’s technical sessions proving to be less technical than expected, I took the opportunity to catch them.

Film Posters

Followers of Formula 1 have been looking forward to this film. The documentary follows the life of Ayrton Senna, the late great Formula 1 champion. Using archive footage, the documentary explores the rise of Ayrton through the ranks of F1 and his acrimonious relationship with the authorities and his great rival Alain Prost. Although the documentary is probably too kind to Senna, it is really well put together and very enjoyable. There were a surprising number of non sports fans in the audience but all seemed to enjoy it.

‘Sound It Out’ is a documentary about a record store Stockton-on-Tees, 15 minutes away from where I grew up and at the other end of the high street my mother worked on. So out of local camaraderie I had to find time to see what turned out to be a lovely little film. The documentary tells the story of the ‘Sound It Out’ record store owned by Tom and the customers who use it. It’s a great little documentary worth catching if you get a chance.

Q&A for 'Sound It Out'

Parties

SXSW is very much party driven and it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s happening. Parties seem to occur all over town. When I wasn’t attending films, I mainly stuck to the official parties or parties near the conference centre. In fact I have to admit I got bored of them and decided to miss the closing SXSWi party, so that I could attend the first night of SXSW Music. Sadly this was a big mistake as the ‘Foo Fighters’ played the closing party. Free beer and one of the world’s biggest bands. How cool is that! By the time I found out about the gig, the queues were snaking around the block. I did manage to listen to them from a multi-story car park, but it’s not the same. Unfortunately my lack of Internet away from the conference centre proving to be my undoing.

SXSW Interactive Party

SXSW Interactive Party

SXSW Interactive Party

Official Opening Party.

Is SXSWi still a technical conference and would I attend SXSW2012?

My lasting impression of SXSWi is that it’s no longer the place to go to see cutting edge web or app development (if it ever was). I’d say at least 50% of the people I spoke to attended for the social side. I met very few web or app developers, the majority were marketing people or ‘social media strategists’. They felt SXSWi offered valuable ‘networking’ opportunities to make the expense worthwhile. I guess this probably explains why there were queues to get into parties but not technical sessions. Despite the lack of technical content, SXSW is a cool event. If you work in the ‘Interactive’ arena, I think SXSW is one of those conferences you have experience once in your work life. Just lower your expectations of what you’ll get out of technical sessions.

Though I have to admit, if another marketing person tells me they’re a ‘social media strategist’, I won’t be held responsible for my actions.


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