Media SXSW Apps

Six of the best at SXSW

By Pete Thomas

March 23, 2012 | 6 min read

Pete Thomas, futures director for Uniform gives us his top six presentations from his adventure at SXSW 2012.

We’re just back from SXSW, where we were showcasing some of the work our innovation platform, ULAB, has been exploring around Paper Apps

If you’re interested in technology and interaction design, then five days of geekery on this scale will be hard to beat. My advice to any would-be SXSW’ers would be to follow your gut – the talks that sounded really exciting generally were. Here are some of my highlights:

1. Marc Shillum, principal at Method Inc, talked about Brands as Patterns. Marc proposed that Brand Communications need to be thought of as patterns of activity and engagement, with different frequencies and intensities, composed much like a piece of music - nothing radically new but nicely communicated.

2. David Eagleman – Neuroscientist and Author of Incognito, talked about the nature and science of perception. This was the kind of talk I wanted from SXSW, a very smart and charismatic speaker with some hardcore geeky facts – my favourite, albeit useless, fact being that if your name is Dennis or Denise you're statistically more likely to become a dentist.

3. MIT Media Lab gave a pretty lacklustre presentation but I loved their manifesto for “undirected research” which chimes with what ULAB is trying to do. I particularly liked their rallying call to “throw away your map” and “try not to have a plan” although one or either may have helped them to give a better presentation.

4. David Womack creative director at R/GA gave a confident solo presentation around the title “Does Your Product Have A Plot”. The talk was memorable for many things, but I was most happy to be reminded of The Freitag Triangle and illuminated on its relationship to and a 55 Gallon tub of Lube. Google it.

5. My inner geek was satisfied with the solo presentation by Peter Diamandis – the founder of the X-Prize. He talked about his new book, Abundance and threw in some pretty amazing tech facts, such as: By 2050 $1,000 worth of computing power will equal the entire processing power of all the human brains on the earth. Another was that if every image and written word from the start of civilisation up to 2003 were digitised it would amount to five exabytes (or five billion gigabytes) of data. Between 2003 and 2010 we created the same amount of data in two days! By next year we’ll produce that much data in 10 minutes!! I can’t really comprehend the implications of that but I blame it all on pictures of pets on instagram.

6. The best panel I attended was “The New Aesthetic: Seeing like Digital Devices”. Ben Terrett, Russell Davies, James Bridle, Aaaron Cope and Joanne McNeil, painted a compelling picture of how society reacts to, and ultimately subsumes, new technology to redefine its visual culture. There were no clear answers here but lots of questions posed which is how I like it and what we try to do with our own work at ULAB. The talk was an amazing mash up, spanning the Italian futurists, Google Streetview, MS Word’s complacent spell checking and those SMASH adverts from the 1980s, taking in the wonderful twitter feed of @alain_de_bot on the way. Great, inspiring stuff! It’s worth checking out James Bridle’s blog about the talk here.

Our panel title “Can Printed Electronics Save the Music Industry?” was dreamt up by Dr Jon Rogers at the University of Dundee, who chaired the panel. Presenting alongside us were; Dr Kate Stone, founder of Cambridge printed electronics specialists Novalia; interactive artists & musicians FOUND, who created the award winning 'autonomous emotional robot band' Cybraphon; and Mercury Music Prize nominee and hyper-local indie record label founder Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote.

The talk itself went pleasantly well, combining some geekery with fierce anti-geekery from King Creosote and getting a few laughs along the way. Nobody left during the talk which seemed like a result and it all felt worth it when a throng of people stuck around at the end, with a couple telling me it was the best talk they’d seen across the five days, before thrusting a business card into my shaking hand. We never really got to the bottom of whether printed electronics can save the music industry but we did capture some of the zeitgeist at SXSW.

When you go to a conference as sprawling as SXSW you’re forced to create a kind of meta-narrative that threads the disparate elements together. For me, this revolved around the intersection between the physical and the digital world and the way in which our perceptions of both are rapidly changing. As designers, marketers and advertisers we need to grab and embrace these creative challenges and opportunities to redefine our perceptions of what both physical and digital can be.

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