3D portable printer,
big theme at SXSW 2013

I attended SXSW Interactive for the fifth time this year. My first South-by was in 2003, when hot topics  that year included wikis, blogging, and augmented social networks, and all the panels took place within the confines of the third and fourth floors.

SXSW has come a long way since this, but it’s still a mind-blowing and fun week, full of networking opportunities, chance encounters, amazing speakers, and new technology.

Here are the highlights of this year:

1. 3D Printing is big. No, huge.

Multiple panels covered the topic every day of the conference. 3D printing isn’t just about devices churning out plastic trinkets. It’s about revolutionizing the world of all manufactured objects, in the same way that the moveable type printing press revolutionized printing, and more recently, ebooks and print-on-demand revolutionized the publishing industry.

Future of 3D Printing Session

Current state of the art is single-material composites and metals, but coming within a few years we’ll see multi-material printing as well as embedded circuitry.

Although it wasn’t really discussed, one of the big missing aspects of the 3D talks was the topic of an ecosystem play. In the same way that Apple came to dominate the world of music for years, and then later the appstore ecosystem, and in the way Amazon dominates ebooks, there will be the opportunity for someone to own the object-store ecosystem, which will dwarf every other platform out there.

3D printed custom
doll from Makie

Some of the things currently being 3D printed include: dolls, clothing, dishes and glasses, plastic items of any design, toys. And in the design labs they are experimenting with: meat, living (and re-attachable) mice limbs, circuitry, and morphable objects.


2. Artificial Intelligence is the future of user interface design.
Many panels also covered artificial intelligence, but the kind that makes user interfaces smarter, more predictive and personalized. 
A Robot in Your Pocket Session
Examples of this include filtering from among many options to provide the most relevant. An example would be a smartphone transcribing voicemail, using a history of the interaction between two people to figure out the right vocabulary to use, to figure out which “Tom” two people would be likely to refer to, to understand a voicemail reference to “the address I emailed you”, and be able to resolve it.
Example progressions:
  • Progression
    • Analogy: Brakes
    • Digital: Antilock
    • Robot: Crash avoidance
  • Progression
    • Analog: thermostat
    • Digital: timer thermostat
    • Robotic: Nest
  • Information
    • A: Encyclopedia
    • D: Google Search
    • R: Google Now
3. Self-Publishing is More Powerful Than Ever
Self-Publishing in the Age of E Session
This is obviously a personal interest of mine. There were actually very few panels at SXSW this year on publishing, content, or journalism, especially compared to years past when there were entire tracks on these topics. I heard a large number of people echo my disappointment. Publishing and journalism are still very much industries in turmoil, changing daily, and it seems like a shock that SXSW has moved on past that.
That being said, there would two very good talks:
4. Design as Innovation / Responsive Design
Design was a big topic, including both theme of designers are the new leaders and drivers of innovation in company, as well as the responsive design, the UX pattern of how to deal with different devices. Although I attended only a handful of these panels, it was a big topic of discussion, and there were many more panels I didn’t get to attend.
Changes from Past Years
SXSW is always evolving. Some things I noticed:
  • They had less total talks. Last year I remember that there were 65 different sessions in a single timeslot. On the plus side, things were more centralized, but on the negative side I heard many stories of people who didn’t get into talks they wanted to. There also wasn’t a journalism/publishing/content track, and perhaps that was one of the things to go.
  • There were many more foodcarts around, and for once it was relatively easy to get food between sessions.
  • Wireless access was better. I had only a single half hour without access, and that was at the Omni hotel. 
  • Twitter and Foursquare still in heavy use.
  • The bar at the Driskill is still the go-to place for networking in the evening.