Even as a first-time attendee, it was quickly obvious that what you hear and observe off the stage at SXSW tends to be lot more interesting than what is on it. But then, this is not your average digital conference. Where else would you see 12 year old panelists and people attending sessions with newborns in baby bjorns? It’s clearly a place and an event where it’s more about absorbing the zeitgeist than paying attention to the words.
A few observations – the number of people live blogging from tablets in the front rows equaled and in some sessions outmatched the number of laptops. At least 75% of the posters, flyers and stickers festooning the conference center sported QR codes. And at every street corner and at every party, groups of people clearly together were staring separately down at their iPhones (probably checking Highlight) rather than at each other. And yet it all seemed perfectly normal.
I get asked quite often, “Is this the year of mobile?” which I think is a pretty silly question in general – every year is more mobile than the one before it but at SXSW 2012 it seemed clear that we’d hit a tipping point where all the gadgetry and apps and location-based info weren’t novelty anymore but status quo. A moment on a roundtable I took part in sums it up nicely. As we panelists were getting mic’d up and prepared to be filmed, the moderator told us to shoot for “good sound bites”. All eight of us stared back at him blankly until he said “Tweetable – make your comments tweetable guys”. Twitter (which started as a mobile service if you recall) is the perfect example of how deeply embedded mobile is in our daily lives – so embedded that’s it basically supplanted a term that’s defined broadcast media for generations.
That’s not to say there was nothing on offer on the actual conference schedule though. There were several decent sessions about contextual design and HTML5. A few panels on the pros and cons of QR and the future of native applications as well as sessions on the app vs. web conundrum and a handful of app hackathons sponsored by AT&T and Zypr. But the more interesting insights came from installations and presentations around subjects that up until now have occupied the fringe of mobile.
Mobile Payments for example, have been such a long time coming that they feel like an urban legend but based on what we saw, it looks like they are finally around the corner. The biggest splash was made by Isis, an NFC-powered joint payment and loyalty system from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. From their corner booth in the main expo hall they showed off a seamless tap and go solution that will be available via numerous headsets from the aforementioned carriers this Fall. On an iPhone? No problem! Isis-enabled sleeves will be available soon after that to NFC-enable your Apple device in snap. On the merchant side, eBay’s Square competitor, PayPal Here, and Paydragon, a QR-enabled ordering and payment app for restaurant orders, debuted on the Austin food truck scene and showed just what an impact mobile payments can have on small businesses in an increasingly entrepreneurial culture.
Fringe or Fiction
But the most exciting idea came from the keynote given by cyborg anthropologist and Geoloqui co-founder, Amber Case. Case channeled fellow-keynoter Ray Kurzweil with her observations on how our inseparable connection with technology, powered largely by mobile, has turned us into virtual cyborgs. Her musings on the mobile device as an external brain, and, using wearable technology to enhance and annotate our reality, shed a new light on the possibilities of AR – an area that most marketers and many technologists still view with doubt. Her examples of how digital information may actually end up being delivered viscerally – e.g. a vibrations or hot/cold sensations – as overlays to the real world experience were probably the most innovative ideas of the whole event. It’s pretty disruptive to talk about making the interface disappear altogether at an event that’s largely about how to create and leverage interfaces, but it’s also a great reminder of the fact that all media evolves – and faster than we think. From time to time I like to joke about the inevitable Apple iEye retinal implants but I walked away from Case’s presentation thinking that it was not only inevitable but a pretty exciting idea.
It might be fringe now but by SXSW 2015 it might already be the status quo…
Rachel Pasqua, Executive Director, Mobile at Organic