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.

Victor Lee, svp of digital marketing for Hasbro, may have made the best declaration.

“You don’t need six months to plan something great,” Lee said, speaking on a panel about livestreaming. “We need to get out of the Don Draper [mentality]. The agency folks are probably going to hate me for saying that.”

The pace of change nowadays “is phenomenal,” said Kohl’s Agarwal. “We have to evolve; we cannot just be satisfied with the status quo.”

6. Podcasters ramp up presence
Podcasting network Gimlet on Monday held an event next to Stubb’s, Austin’s legendary BBQ joint (which provided the food), including the recording of bonus podcast for those who regularly listen to eBay’s podcast called Open for Biz. At SXSW, there was also a podcasting meet-up and more programming.

“This is the most podcasting content and presence I’ve seen here,” said Gimlet co-founder and president Matt Lieber, in a meeting with Adweek.

Lieber and his team, which focuses on native ads and branded podcasts deals like the one with eBay, also revealed this nugget: They will announce multiple new brand deals in the coming weeks.

7. Facebook’s talkathon
The world’s largest social network had an activation that was cool enough, but what really stood out was the company’s speaking schedule. Facebook, and sister brand Instagram, participated in 16 sessions over the five-day event.

Bob Gruters, Facebook’s U.S. group director, entertainment, technology and connectivity, multicultural, said the busy itinerary represented the company’s strategy to get in front of marketers like never before to discuss advertising and metrics.

“Everyone who comes hear wants to learn, listen and share, and we’re no different,” he said. “This is an amplified stage.”

8. Fasten’s mixed bag
Uber and Lyft are no longer providing their services in the Lone Star State’s capitol city after the municipality last summer requested that all drivers be fingerprinted as a passenger-safety precaution. This was an opportunity for Fasten, the official rideshare brand of SXSW Interactive 2017. It’s a Boston-based startup that launched in 2015 and offers drivers a pretty good deal—they pay Fasten $1 per ride completed and get to keep the rest of the fares outside of a small credit-card fee. Uber, on the other hand, keeps as much as 25 percent of the cash every time.

On Saturday, Kirill Evdakov, co-founder and CEO of Fasten, told Adweek that “we have seen a 250 percent increase in daily new users (people who completed their first ride) during the first day of SXSW comparing to the previous Friday. [Eighty percent-plus] of [the] people who completed their first ride today already completed their second so people are happy with the service.”

But that same night his app—along with chief competitor for the weekend, Ride Austin, which also presumably saw users spike—had outages.

And users started complaining about Fasten’s, at times, astronomical surge pricing.

So it seems like a bit of a mixed bag for the company, though it certainly is now more well-known than before.