Our SXSW Takeaway: So Much More than 8 Bags of Swag, Part 1

mathias_gogglesAustin served as the playground for our front-end developer and creative teams March 13–17 for the 22nd annual SXSW Interactive Festival—“An incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity” and, essentially, the festival that has become the means of previewing the technology that may seem like sci-fi today but will soon be part of our everyday lives.

A copious amount of la Barbecue was consumed. Thousands of steps were walked—in Blue Bottle Coffee fueled frenzies—from keynote to feature to panel to workshop. Here is part 1 of what we spent thousands of collective minutes discussing while waiting in lines, what we brought home and what we’re still excited about a month later:

1. Virtual Reality: The Next Frontier—Finally Here?
Our developers returned with goofy cardboard goggles resembling retro View-Masters pressed to their faces—their preview of Google Cardboard, the new virtual reality kit that helps users experience VR “in a simple, fun and inexpensive way.” Like the more costly Oculus Rift, Cardboard offers access to a full 360 degrees of view, but Cardboard allows the user to experience it with only the cardboard and Velcro goggles and a smartphone.

In fewer than 10 years, VR will likely serve as our primary medium for content delivery. Perhaps that sounds implausible, especially to those of us who’ve been burned by similar claims in the past (Virtual Boy, anyone?). But not everyone is held back by Nintendo-founded doubts; groundbreaking work is already being done on the Rift. For instance, Deep, by Owen Harris, is a game developed to help people through anxiety attacks and is actually powered by the user’s own breathing. Imagine a social media site whose sponsored content responds to your breathing, heart rate and eye movement, loading new articles in response to agitation or a roll of the eyes.

2. Human-Centric Design Trumps Innovation for Innovation’s Sake
A better understanding of the individual’s personal experience, fueled by empathy and psychological insight, is shaping design and new technology. People want their new stuff to offer continuous personalization that adapts to their unique preferences and needs.

The increase of automated objects means designers have to delve deep into how people think to learn what motivates them in order to build technology that learns its user’s behavior, rather than the other way around. The shift here is that a new design or the latest smart invention is actually cooler—more cutting-edge—if your grandparents can pick it up and use it. A far cry from the Palm Pilot.

3. Maybe We Can De-Creep Data After All.
Caused-based organizations are creating a compelling demand for data. Imagine a human-rights organization using metadata to prove human-rights violations captured via smartphone on the other side of the world—or to hold organizations accountable for falsifying footage that makes a peaceful protest appear to be an unruly riot.

Perhaps the slightest shudder ran down our communal spines the first time our badges were swiped to record our attendance at a free-to-SXSW-badgeholders Spoon concert. “We’re using the data,” the SXSW volunteers said with candor and a shrug. But, frankly, we’re just getting used to it—which is in line with the way Millennials have come into adulthood with different ideas of privacy compared to older generations.

From social-networking-platform user agreements clicked by 14 year olds to an unintentionally swiped smartphone geo tracker, privacy concerns are getting more complicated, not simpler. But the simple truth is we want to know what other people are doing and how our behavior compares. Newer research shows that it is one of the biggest motivators and predictors of behavior.

Take, for example, the call to reduce U.S. energy consumption. Three campaigns were built to compel people to use less energy. All three were considered failures, because the persuasive campaign was something no one had thought of: people were motivated to live a greener life when they were presented with findings about their neighbor’s energy usage. (Yes, it is likely greener on the other side of the fence.)

4. The Best Solution Is Likely One You Haven’t Thought Of.
Like the ineffective energy-reduction campaigns, we still have a lot of old notions and mindsets to shake. In his session, “Magical UX and the Internet of Things,” Josh Clark called for the end of wearable wearables. Because it’s not about another device. It’s not even about a screen. “Designing for this new medium is less a challenge of technology,” he says, “than imagination.” New UX should be adapting to how we live our lives.

Designers will have to focus less on the device and more on the environment in which users—humans, that is—exist. We’re making screen interfaces because we have a history of using and interacting with screens. However, necessity in no way actually dictates the use of screens. In the future, anything can be an interface.

Read part 2 of our SXSW takeaway here.

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