SXSW 2016

Uniform was at SXSW running a panel and workshop on the Internet of Things (IoT) and virtual reality to grow grassroots sport. Here's what we brought back from Austin.

14.04.16 | Opinion

By Erika Shorter


We’re over our jetlag and back in the swing of life after spending an exhilarating 5 days at SXSW, where we ran a panel and workshop on the Internet of Things and virtual reality to grow grassroots sport. Our SXSW team was myself (Erika), Ben, Steve and Jon from Uniform, and Dees, our pal from Mozilla. As each of us have different areas of expertise and interest, we all took different things away from the experience of SXSW.

Steve - Commercial Director at Uniform

In reflection on our time at SXSW, I've been looking at the importance of this event for both Uniform and the wider creative community.

Few events bring together such an interesting mix of creatives, filmmakers, musicians, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world, and the outcome is truly unique. In its 30th year, it's clear SXSW is more than just an event; it's a global community coming together to explore new ideas and potential collaborations, all in a place that celebrates weird individualism. For a company like Uniform that has a purpose to imagine the impossible, it's the perfect stage to share our work and points of view. 

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It was a great honour to be asked to lead a panel discussion for a second time, following our panel in 2012 exploring paper electronics; a great accolade for our continuous innovation programme. To echo the sentiment of President Obama's keynote address, SXSW provides huge opportunities to find the right collaborators that can work on projects that will change the world.

What surprised me was how brands failed to take advantage of such an influential audience. Generally, the brands exhibiting failed to excite the SX audience, and activation was too brand centric, obvious, and in some cases, felt totally out of place. This is the biggest opportunity for brands thinking of exhibiting at SXSW in the future. If you take the time to understand the audience, there are endless possibilities to build vital brand recognition in an incredibly dynamic environment.

As we continue to look to the future and make sense of how, as creatives, we can make that future better, SXSW is becoming an important part of our process. The feedback we’ve received from this year’s visit validates our reasons for being involved, and we look forward to bringing more fantastic ideas next year.

Dees - Firestarter at Mozilla

I came. I saw. I relaxed. All too often for me SXSW is a hurried mix of parties, meetings, talks, friends and the ever-present unknown around the corner.

This year was pretty much no meetings. No talks either (I did make an effort by trying to snag a spot at President Obamas address). I kept the parties, albeit limited. What child-of-yesterday could give up the opportunity to see artists like Coolio, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah live? There was even a evening of Bloc Party (remember them?). Old friends were there - with at least one tapping you on the shoulder every breakfast burrito or late-night slice of Death Metal pizza. New friends were made. Cocktails were definitely had. The unknown came in the form of a bizarre parade down 6th Street with life-size animals, from rhinos to giraffes. Not to mention a semi-reconstruction of the Coney Island set of Mr Robot and the F-Society crew.

Then there were the tech bits. As predicted, ‘virtual everything’ and drones were everywhere. Some (but not much) IoT. All in all, the feeling of lots of showcases and demos but very little practical application for our day-to-day lives. I was more than half expecting an autonomous car or two, but none were to be seen. Not even the free Mazda rides were electric vehicles.

Most of that sounds doom and gloom right? Well — a lot of the magic happens in unexpected pockets: the hallways of the convention centre, the shuffle-boards of Buffalo Billiards, that late night whisky at The Driskill. And that’s probably the way it should stay.

As for the interactive workshop and panel I ran with Erika and Jon, I’m pleased to say there were no fancy demos - just a roomful of people excited by grassroots sport and intrigued by the concept of VR and IoT. Not to mention downright scared when we motioned them to form groups, stuck Sharpies and paper in their hands and told them to - god-forbid - talk to each other.

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Soon they were sketching ideas and exploring them in VR through supplied cardboard headsets. An hour down the road these same hesitant folk had to be ushered out the room by frantic SXSW staff needing to set up for the next session. Magical.

Erika - Research and Insight Manager at Uniform

Heat. Cowboy boots. Really good coffee. Lizards. Hazy mornings. Friendly Uber drivers. Politically terrifying Uber drivers. Mexican food. Margaritas. Sport geeks. Tech geeks. Activists. Evangelists. A guy in a werewolf suit playing the violin on the corner of 5th avenue.. 

SXSW was wonderful and strange.

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It was also thrilling, in a first day at uni or a new job sort of way. There was a lot going on that I couldn’t quite get my head around (Quantum Receptivity, anyone?) and a lot going on that I couldn’t get enough of, like Kevin Kelly’s talk: 12 Inevitable Tech Forces that will Shape our Future. He drilled right down into a lot of my reservations about the isolating way technology - especially virtual reality could, at its worst, go - and gave me hope for a future that doesn’t see us all roaming around like zombies with our heads encased in black plastic. He spoke of a human-centric future, where Artificial Intelligence replaces only the jobs humans shouldn’t be doing and VR brings our friends and family into the experience. After leaving the conference centre after Kelly’s talk, the VR headsets that were EVERYWHERE didn’t seem so much like predictors of some Orwellian dystopia I’m not convinced I want to be a part of, rather predictors of a hopeful, empathetic and exciting future.

The SX Sport meet ups were a hotbed of the most memorable conversations of the weekend. That “hovering at the edges of conversations waiting for a chance to dive in” thing that can be so painful just... wasn’t. That everyone was so keen to speak to me was validation that what we were doing was every bit as cool as I thought. And in a city swarming with geeks (and I say geeks in only the most complimentary of ways), there wasn’t a sniff of snobbery, only curiosity and a desire to learn from each other.

I’m beyond chuffed with how our panel went, and pleased we broke away from some of the (widely discussed and visibly prevalent) problems of SXSW. Too high-tech heavy. Too middle class. Too elitist. Lacking diversity. Interestingly, some people didn’t know quite what they were there for. It turns out that some speakers used the word ‘interactive’ quite loosely, to the point where our participants were surprised they had to do just that - participate.   

“Workshop? So we have to like… do things?”

After saying this, one participant immediately turned around and left, which I have to admit, slightly shook my confidence. She returned with suspicious side-eye, an enormous coffee and a friend, and proceeded to be one of our most engaged participants. We were lucky to have some friends in the audience (thanks Jack Chalkley and Tom Metcalfe) helping out, which made each table’s workshop experience smooth as well as fun.

After sketching ideas around VR and IoT to grow grassroots sport, we all uploaded our sketches via a bespoke app and explored them in cardboard headsets. I think it was the low-fi tech that helped everyone be so hands on and engaged, widening grassroots away from sport to encompass technology itself. Cardboard doesn’t intimidate. It’s comfortable; it’s familiar. It was the collective gasp when we pressed our ‘Internet Button” and changed the background on the images to an impressive stadium that has stuck with me since. It was one of those moments of revelation, potential and empowerment (that I imagine are plentiful at a place like SXSW) that make our explorations into new social and technological relationships worthwhile.

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SXSW A3 Sheets V2 For Erikas Blog

Jon - Professor at the University of Dundee

In the years I’ve been going to SXSW I’ve seen the Internet of Things (IoT) and VR transform from nascent ideas into the promise of the Next Big Thing. Last year, IoT and VR seemed neck-and-neck in the race to become accessible and mainstream. This year, VR has made a sprint for the finish.

On every corner of downtown Austin (and in between) were commercial companies offering the latest VR products and services – things people could jump into and onto and take away right now. IoT, however, seemed still in the R&D phase: a big promise, but waiting for the killer app. The next Nest wasn’t there. A standard wasn’t announced. A platform for creation and discovery remains elusive. That’s not to say it isn’t coming, just that it isn’t here yet. Which in many ways is good news. It’s the slow burn of IoT that is making it grow wider and sturdier. VR feels like a ready-to-go product, but I’ve no sense that it’s going beyond - as Dees called it - the 3 week journey of “oh this is nice” to “oh I’m a bit bored”.   

I’m now more convinced than ever that the route isn’t about a ‘winner’. It’s about collaboration and learning between these two platforms. How can VR come off the screen? How can IoT come onto a stable mobile platform? What can these two giant technological offerings bring to our daily lives?

I’m super looking forward to what next year is going to bring; I just don’t think the massively tech-savvy intelligent audience of SXSW will suck up another showcase of “woah isn’t this great today”. They’re too smart for that. They’ll want to hear and experience a promise about a sustainable future, how these technologies will gain traction and reach into our daily lives in a way that goes beyond the freebies of a watered-down cocktail at a ‘tech experience’ on the corner of 5th Street and Trinity.

BEN - Senior Creative at Uniform

I’m on Uniform’s Film Team and I was tasked with documenting Uniform’s time at the festival. As a SXSW virgin, here are my takeaways:

1.SXSW will make you network despite yourself.

I’m pale and cynical so the idea of going to a hot climate and ‘talking’ to strangers brings me out in a rash. However, I found myself having meaningful conversations with fellow filmmakers throughout the festival. My masterstroke was packing a large and expensive-looking lens. Film nerds took this as an invitation to chat, and I ended up exchanging life stories and career ambitions with several ‘producers’ and ‘directors’ of varying legitimacy. By hometime, I was able to nod and say ‘wow, cool’ with the practised sincerity of a real American. Even those that didn’t have time to stop would at least throw an appreciative nod at the camera on my hip and say ‘nice lens’. This must be how Errol Flynn felt when he wore tights.

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2.VR has arrived.

At Uniform, we’ve been developing 360 content for a while now, and if SXSW is anything to go by, the rest of the tech world is catching up. E 2nd St / Trinity St was a pickpocket’s paradise with every other geek standing motionless in the street sporting a Samsung- branded VR blindfold. There were headsets in the trade show, in bars, in toilets and on rickshaws. We had an exciting VR project to show off (Grip) and everyone we asked happily strapped it to their faces without hesitation.

Content had been created with varying success. Samsung’s ‘experience’ was a rollercoaster sim (I don’t know about you, but I tend to look exclusively forward on a rollercoaster). That said, there was encouragement to be found in the sessions, with plenty of talk around VR’s narrative potential. Fingers crossed that the technology will be embraced by progressive creatives (like ourselves) before the inevitable backlash. 

3. Lake Austin does not contain alligators. 

I checked.


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