Ogilvy Labs' Gemma Milne: Five SXSW observations including eye-opening live hacking and frustrating VR

So I just returned from the madness that was SXSW Interactive 2016. Attending for my second year, and determined to make even more of the week than in 2015, I thought I’d really take the standard advice for SXSW attendees and let serendipity guide my movements.

I went where the interesting people went and chose sessions based more on my curiosity over the quiet feeling of ‘I should probably go to that as it’s relevant to work’. So here are five observations from my time in Austin which reflects the thoughts I am still left pondering back in the UK.

1. Obama

I’ll admit, I was cynical. I didn’t apply for a ticket to the main event – sod standing around for three hours waiting for security to be completed when there’s so much other incredible stuff going on around town (sorry Obama). And, surely he would be toeing the party line and avoiding topics of controversy and meatiness – so what’s the point of listening? But I had a glorious lunch with some brilliant minds and they were going to the live stream, so I followed to continue conversation. And boy was I wrong.

Obama was frank about getting the tech community and the government having tighter relations, but instead of the usual ‘we’ve created this scheme and here’s where you can find out some information’, he directed the responsibility straight to us. He said things like ‘It’s not about passively waiting for someone else solving the problems of society - the slogan wasn’t “Yes I can”’ – marrying both poignant musings with humour, and I left feeling both motivated to DO something and full of questions as to how I could do that. Which I reckon is a pretty successful outcome for a SXSW speaker…

2. Adam Tyler from CSID

The session description included the words ‘Live Hack’ - need I say more? Tucked away in one of the smaller rooms in the Austin Convention Centre was my favourite session of the festival, and possibly one of my favourite talks I’ve seen, period. Adam Tyler is chief innovation officer of CSID – a cyber security firm – and he spent his hour on the SXSW stage showing us just how easy it is to steal credit card details, create computer viruses and auction off personal information and fraudulent official documentation from all over the world. Live.

He Googled it, showed us the URLs (sometimes by accident…), and debunked the myth that hackers are supremely intelligent beings but rather people who are bored, trying to impress their pals and really not that technologically literate. He answered those questions we’re possibly too scared to find out for ourselves – what do these illegal forums look like? How expensive is it to buy a fraudulent university degree certificate online? How do you actually create a computer virus? What kind of drugs can I purchase online? What’s happening right now with these hackers?

Only thing I was disappointed about – the session wasn’t filmed for me to share with you guys right now…!

3. Unexpected empty rooms

I was super excited to go see a session exploring how we can stop organisations like ISIS online by intercepting their social accounts, curbing their recruitment activity and dispelling harmful propaganda messages targeting young people. I turned up at the session ready to find out more about how technology and marketing experts could take part, help, advise…one of the main goals for SXSW is to create these incredible collisions of worlds so as to encourage collaboration.

The speaker was extremely knowledgeable about the culture, the countries, the military, the government – but he was open about the need for expertise in social media, technology and marketing to help debunk how the internet can be used for influence and exchange of information. So what a surprise I got when I arrived to the ~1500 capacity room to find it occupied with less than 50 people. Turns out a panel session with the stars of Broad City was a more important use of attendee time.

I understand that people are going to SXSW for entertainment as well as inspiration, but I couldn’t quite believe that some of the most incredible people from around the world – some of the most effective ‘do-ers’ – chose not to hear about how they could collaborate on such a huge global issue…

4. Ignite sessions

I’m slightly biased on this one as I happened to be one of the Ignite speakers – but hear me out. On the Monday, there were four separate hour-long special Ignite sessions. Within each hour, there were 10 speakers – each had 20 slides which auto-advanced every 15 seconds, resulting in only 5 minutes to blow our minds. The speakers ranged from the president of The Onion, to the founder of 500 Startups to several TechCrunch writers to designers, bureaucrats, NGOs, scientists… to name but a few. And how refreshing it was to watch incredible people quickly get to the point, perform, earn our attention.

I like the fact that the SXSW sessions are an hour – it means you can really dive into the topic in depth – but it was equally brilliant to have your mind opened to 10 different ideas in the same amount of time in an entertaining, TED-like manner. It made me wonder if this is how we should format more speeches and conferences in future… It would certainly successfully open minds quickly, prompt questions that stick with the attendees and avoid that all too well known mid-speech boredom…

5. VR, VR, VR

I really didn’t want to write about VR as I feel it’s getting quite a tired topic which we’re spending lots of time talking about but not very much time creating awesome activations… but there was so much of it at SXSW. So much of it being used as simply a way of getting people to come talk to you. McDonald’s, Dell, NASA, Gillette…they all had VR experiences in their lounges or at their exhibition stands – but all were there purely to get you to walk over to them. I didn’t see anyone using VR for anything…useful. Only one exhibitor in the HealthTech zone had a VR set up – and again, it felt like it was there simply to draw people towards their stand.

I really wanted to see some VR uses in education, in high intensity training, in medicine. Dell, in fairness, had us exploring the depths of the ocean with a whale to show what it felt like when oil tankers were operating on the surface, which did make me feel angry and motivated to do something… Though I’ll admit I’ve done nothing since (and actually don’t know what I was meant to do) – so again, it all feels a bit useless.

Working in marketing, maybe it’s a cardinal sin to criticise brands for activations which have the sole purpose of pulling someone towards them – but with VR being such an advanced technology which can do so much good by mimicking real experience, I guess I felt frustrated at the shallowness of the activity. As agencies, I feel we need to be encouraging brands who want to create VR experiences to be clear on what is it they want the user to feel – and if you’re doing something for pure ‘draw’ purposes, at least create something that feels like high end entertainment.

Having a set up with a headset is enough to get people to come over to you, but it’s not enough to get people to remember the point you want to make.

Gemma Milne is a tech innovation strategist at Ogilvy Labs. She tweets @gkmilne1

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