These 8 Topics Had Attendees Buzzing at South by Southwest

From AI and VR to wearables and Big Blue

Astronaut legend Buzz Aldrin is using virtual reality to educate humans about space colonization.
Getty Images

Another South by Southwest Interactive is in the books, and here are eight subjects that we heard an unusual amount of chatter about.

1. Anything but artificial interest
It was rather difficult to avoid artificial intelligence when attending panels, as machine learning appears to be a big part of the future of advertising, marketing, healthcare, etc. Whether it was Intel, IBM or Kohl’s, everyone wanted to talk AI and algorithms that constantly get smarter. And for good reason: PWC forecasts the space will inspire 1,600-plus startups and $12 billion in funding by 2020.

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and star of ABC’s Shark Tank, told South By attendees Sunday that the “the world’s first trillionaires are going to come from somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives and applies it in ways we never thought of.”

Kohl’s director of technology Garima Agarwal said, “I’m a big machine-learning fan. Smarter machines are definitely a reality, and it’s important for us to embrace that. Machine learning can truly transform your business.”

2. Virtual Reality
There were many sessions that discussed virtual reality and how brands can create immersive experiences with the emerging tech. Startups like Virtuix, Cam4VR and 8i showed offer their platforms and creative work, with 8i offering a 10-minute film starring Buzz Aldrin and his mission to have humans someday colonize Mars. (Read all about that one here.) And various marketers, including National Geographic, Walmart, Universal Pictures (#TheMummy) and NASA, leaned heavy into VR within their activations.

At the same time, not everyone said that virtual reality should be a big focus.

“People are worried about VR when they haven’t figured out how to do a proper Facebook ad spend,” VaynerMedia founder Gary Vaynerchuk said, per Adweek staff writer Christine Birkner.

3. Big Blue goes big
We’ve been coming to SXSW Interactive for several years, and it seems safe to say that IBM’s presence at the festival has never been more pronounced.

The brand had a huge activation showing off its tech, chiefly Watson-based features and systems, and president and CEO Ginni Rometty was among the most talked about speakers, appearing multiple times in and around the Austin Convention Center. Many other IBM execs had on-stage showings as well.

Big Blue's activation was a hit at South By.

4. Internet of Things remains hot
IoT has been super buzzy at SXSW for a few years, and it seemed to maintain such a high level of interest this year. There were activations powered by Microsoft’s HoloLens hologram platform, and Sony’s exhibit, called Wow Factory, featured its Xperia Touch. It’s a portable projector that can turn any surface into a touch screen.

Princess Cruises president Jan Swartz riffed on her company’s forthcoming Ocean Medallion initiative. Coming in November on the Regal Princess, it will let the boat’s guests opt in to receiving alerts via the medallions about more than 100 activities on the ship, everything from pilates to poker classes and shopping events. Princess Cruises will survey those customers before they board the ship about what they are interested in. Then, the guests can keep the medallion, which is the size of a quarter, in their pocket or wear it as a necklace or wristband to get alerts about the activities.

“The sensors are all around the ship, and they allow us to create an ecosystem that deliver personalization at scale in terms of experiences,” said Swartz. Read more about the effort here.

5. Speed, speed, speed
There was a ton of talk about digital transformation and customer experience, the buzzwords of 2017 so far in the marketing industry. Yet, SXSW speakers’ underlying message was fairly simple: Every brand has to to move faster while maintaining strategies.