Austin American-Statesman Omar L. Gallaga column
Mar 18, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Given the recent history of South by Southwest Interactive, the number shouldn't have been surprising.
And then it was.
By the end of the tech-themed part of the SXSW festival on Tuesday, it had reached 30,621 total attendees, surprising even festival organizers, who had estimated Interactive would grow by only about 5 percent to 8 percent over 2012's 24,569. In 2009, the festival had fewer than 11,000 attendees.
"I was somewhat startled by those numbers," said Interactive Director Hugh Forrest, who in recent years has been trying to find solutions to downtown congestion that every March brings. The growth was fueled by last-minute walk-up registration and, apparently, more places to stay in the area than anyone thought existed.
"The 'Airbnb' market is even more elastic than we thought before," he said. "Either that or there was a ton of couch surfing at hotels."
But the remarkable thing about SXSW Interactive 2013 was that it rarely felt like there were about 6,000 more people crowding into the Austin Convention Center and other fest venues. Despite rain the first two days of Interactive and some early shuttle issues that could be blamed on typical Austin traffic, badge pickup lines moved more quickly than last year. Many of the higher profile speakers were in gigantic rooms that accommodated most of the crowds for draws such as broadcaster Rachel Maddow, former Vice President Al Gore, "The Oatmeal" cartoonist Matthew Inman and entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Some unexpectedly popular panels ended up full, annoying those who missed programming (luckily, they had Twitter to complain about it), but in general, the festival ran smoothly. Expo floors at the Convention Center and at Palmer Events Center for SXSW Gaming were well-organized and with better booths. There were few crises, big cancellations or unforeseen external conversation shifters like 2011's Japanese tsunami or last year's "Homeless hotspots," a marketing stunt by a company unrelated to Interactive that drew strong criticism.
Well, except for one small cat.
Tardar Sauce, an 11-month-old feline known online as "Grumpy Cat" because of her constant unhappy facial expression, came to town to shoot some videos for Friskies and then was hosted in a tent put on by the tech website Mashable. For days, lines formed around the block to get a photo with the Internet meme star, suddenly the hottest celebrity at the festival.
Soon there was backlash against Grumpy Cat (the "Free Grumpy Cat!" movement), and then backlash to the backlash, and eventually it was the real-world equivalent of an Internet message board exchange. But for a few days at Interactive, it seemed like the poor cat was all anyone could talk about, even on panels. TMZ's Harvey Levin joked that the cat sprayed him.
On the bright side, perhaps her ubiquity proves the Internet isn't as fragmented and isolating as some suggest. Everybody had an opinion on Grumpy Cat. Forrest said he was disappointed by reports by some snarky journalists that Grumpy Cat was the only thing the fest had to offer, but in the end, he said the whole issue was "one more part of what makes SXSW special, crazy, fun and bizarre."
Other conversation-starters from the fest:
Hardware: Because there weren't many high-profile new apps launching at the festival, pundits declared 2013 to be the year of hardware overtaking apps and software. It was true to a point. Bre Pettis of MakerBot began the fest by rolling out a prototype 3-D scanner that can digitize an object's design (say a garden gnome) and be used with a 3-D printer to, in effect, mass produce it. It was part of a broader conversation about 3-D printing that was compelling (imagine cheaply "printing" prosthetic hands for children who couldn't afford them otherwise) and a little scary. In a talk by Cody Wilson, a speaker at the fest who as a UT law student made waves for distributing designs for 3-D printed firearms, the idea of cheap, print-at-home guns sounded inevitable. None of it seemed ready for the mainstream, but 3-D printers are definitely in our future.
The rest of the hardware that got attention at the fest was either clever but modest, like the Leap Motion 3-D controller, which can read your hand and finger gestures in the air like a more precise Xbox 360 Kinect, or evolutionary, like new versions of the Roku video streaming box or the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. OUYA, a $99 game console due out in June, was the victim of an awkward keynote presentation in which the company's CEO, Julie Uhrman, fended off persistent questions from the Verge writer Joshua Topolsky and made the mistake of not revealing any new details. The bottom line was that hardware may be gaining attention, but without good games, user friendly apps and a community of customers, many of them will be practically DOA.
Inspiration: More than practical advice, which anyone can get online, I found more attendees this year seeking a TED-like dose of inspiration. Musk's passion for space travel, including the oft-repeated line that he wants to die on Mars, but not on impact, touched many at his keynote presentation, while design guru Tina Roth Eisenberg advised her audience on living a balanced life rather than simply pushing out design tips. Inman simply made the audience laugh, frequently and heartily, with a mix of jokes and hilarious visuals.
An exhibit of the James Webb Telescope, NASA's successor to the Hubble, helped put more frivolous things at the fest in proper perspective. A tribute to Aaron Swartz, a brilliant activist hacker who committed suicide in January, attracted many web freedom luminaries. But perhaps the most inspiring tech talk, according to attendees and SXSW staffers, was from a politician. Newark, N.J., mayor Cory Booker was the SXSW Interactive Award winner for speaker of the festival for a talk on how social media and collaboration can move the entire country forward.
The mini-themes: Despite the oversaturation of brands getting in everyone's face (Doritos, Oreos, Chevy, American Airlines, Microsoft, AT&T and many others), some tech talk made it through. Winning election prognosticator Nate Silver spoke on ways to utilize the massive amounts of data we're generating, a running theme of the so-called "Quantified Self" movement that includes wearable fitness monitors and tracking sensors.
Ride-sharing services like Uber and SideCar roamed the streets, picking up smartphone summoners as they try to expand their services. By the time Tuesday came, Shaquille O'Neal had won the hearts of techies by simply being Shaq, the word "Innovate," according to a fake story in the Onion, had been uttered 650,000 times, and a Cirque du Soleil show at Austin City Limits Live only added to the surreal feeling of the Internet and the real world twisting together into a tight knot.
SXSW Interactive, as Forrest says, tries hard to be a big tent for all. Some years, that tent of wonders is even literal.
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