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Point Of View

SXSW Interactive 2016

Joshua WIlliams

Background:
Every March, thousands of people flock to Austin, Texas for SXSW Interactive—an incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity, featuring five days of compelling panels, presentations, brand activations and more. Some of this year’s key themes and takeaways for marketers included:

A New Generation of Influence: The focus for marketers is shifting from Millennials to Generation Z. This mobile-native generation is on the cusp of entering the workforce but still has a strong influence on the purchasing power of Gen X and Millennial parents. Gen Z is vastly different from its predecessors – for them, gender standards barely exist and categories and labels are meaningless. They’re twice as likely to use YouTube versus Millennials; they’re also more likely to shop online and have an attention span that’s almost 50% shorter. To them, media and communications is all about immediacy, authenticity and privacy.

The Virtual World: One of the biggest focal points at SXSWi was virtual reality. On top of numerous panels, it was almost impossible to find a brand-sponsored lounge or party that didn’t have a VR headset. While there’s still a lot of challenges ahead regarding scale and adoption, many at SXSWi were bullish about VR’s potential for storytelling and audience engagement. For example, consider a VR cycling experience—it takes a lot of self-discipline to exercise, but VR can help people more easily escape the mindset of pain and boredom and submerge into another world. There’s also an opportunity to deliver empathy: you can enable users to virtually ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,’ by showing people the hardships of refugees and poverty.

Some at SXSWi predicted VR as the main computer screen of the future. If this becomes true, then imagine a generation where having an online vs. offline experience might be a foreign concept. Will social networks like Facebook just become a virtual club for your friends to hang out in?

Robots vs. Humans: IBM introduced SXSWi to Pepper, the first social humanoid robot capable of understanding and reacting to human emotions; he listens and adapts to your preferences the longer you’re with him. Pepper is being tested in Japan now, with a key focus on benefits for the healthcare, retail and hospitality industries. He could be particularly useful for tasks with little room for human error—like providing pills at a regulated time each day.

In 50 years, there will likely be nothing a human can do that a robot can’t. But while a robot that vacuums your house is easy to adopt, one that cooks you dinner or minds your baby is much harder to grasp. Robots are fueled by big data—but will the human race be able to trust this data and the robot’s ability to perform such tasks?

Future of Retail. The future of shopping is about online-offline integration. For example, the commercialization of AR apps can enable brands to link offline media (like print) to a digital experience. Moreover, products must deliver some sense of ceremony beyond pure function and even the shopping experience must delivery utility rather than being merely a concept space. That blending of qualities is key in e-commerce; brands must embrace the convergence of both content and commerce in order to appeal to the increasingly demanding consumer.

A lot of the SXSWi tech showed potential for retail, from VR to 3D printing to the Internet of Things. AI in particular is interesting—it’s becoming advanced enough that AI recommendations and anticipation of needs are starting to feel very human and natural. Thanks to data application, the suggestions made around clothing, food, music and travel spots you might like, continue to improve, moving us from human curation to machine learning solutions.

Evolution of Language: Emoji usage has exploded in the past couple years, providing users with an efficient means of expressing emotion online. Studying emoji patterns is quickly becoming a cultural mirror into different regions of the world. A session investigating the linguistic trends of emoji usage posed the question of whether our language is becoming more like the hieroglyphs seen in ancient Egypt. Will our language eventually evolve (or devolve) to just using emojis/gifs for digital communication?

3D Printing: Last but not least, it turns out that 3D printed food tastes pretty good. And fun aside, it’s gaining purpose for people dealing with health obstacles or food allergies, be it in the military, space, hospitals and more. Computers can print out the food that modern chefs just can’t cook up for people in need.

For more insights on these topics, check out more SXSWi recaps from Alexandra Spaseff, Ann Kelsey, Chrissie Hanson, Elliot Nam, Emma Witkowski, Jason Maggs, and Kristin Hogan here and here.