Despite the ever-expanding range of topics and content, SXSW Interactive is still a tech conference at heart. The biggest buzz in tech at this year’s conference is (obviously) AI, but spatial computing and its potential use cases, from mixed reality productivity to VR experiences, are a close second.

AI will make mistakes

One of Monday’s highlight sessions featured OpenAI’s VP of Consumer Product and Head of ChatGPT, Peter Deng, in conversation with Signalfire’s Josh Constine. Their discourse revolved largely around the interplay between humans and AI and the future of ChatGPT in terms of product development and regulation. What could have been an insightful and in-depth discussion about ChatGPT’s future roadmap, the responsible development and disclosure of AI use in communications, the inherent bias of LLMs and the potential regulation, was unfortunately stifled by Deng’s diplomatically veiled answers to almost every critical question.

Will AI lead to massive job losses? Yes, perhaps, but in the future we may simply have more companies with fewer employees. Is ChatGPT/OpenAI too American-centric? No, we want to align with the user’s values and include bits and pieces from all cultural backgrounds. Has the OpenAI board reshuffle been a distraction? No, we are too focused on the work. Should we have rules about disclosure? No, social norms should be the solution. How do we ensure AI literacy and avoid a new digital divide? Make the technology widely available.

Most of these answers would have been worthy of further evaluation and critical reflection, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

However, a number of interesting insights could be gained. When asked if ChatGPT would always have a free version, Deng said yes, and the plan was to add more and more features from the paid version as it became cheaper and more efficient to run. One could also read between the lines that OpenAI had a lot of features and capabilities in the queue to be released for ChatGPT, but is rolling them out slowly and iteratively to avoid potentially negative impacts. As Deng said – “AI will make mistakes” – and OpenAI aims to keep those mistakes small and manageable as part of its responsible development philosophy.

Spatial computing: Immersive storytelling and beyond

The transition from ancient storytelling methods to modern spatial computing: Ola Björling from Buoy led an insightful session highlighting the potential for marketing in the realms of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR). He pointed out that VR devices such as Meta’s Quest and Apple’s Vision Pro mark a significant step in our quest to create immersive experiences that capture moments and emotions, offering users a unique sense of presence.

In defining spatial computing, Björling quoted Simon Greenwold of MIT, who presented it as an interaction in which machines manipulate references to real objects and spaces. Spatial computing isn’t just about technology; it’s about creating experiences that seamlessly integrate with and intelligently respond to our physical environment. He pointed out that Apple is not a late entrant to the space, but has been working on the device for years, citing patents filed. For Greenwood a spatial computing device and Apple’s abandoned autonomous car project would share a lot of underlying technology – from an engineering perspective.

He outlined several future areas of engagement for spatial computing, but one thing remains clear: The technology isn’t about reaching the masses, it’s about creating more meaningful and deeper interactions with users. This medium offers a sense of presence and immersion unparalleled by other forms of media, making it an exceptional tool for fostering deep emotional connections. VR is highlighted as one of the most emotionally powerful mediums, capable of creating memories and experiences that users process as though they were real. This can have profound implications for brand experiences, making them more memorable and impactful.

Mixed Reality enables the blending of digital and real-world content, opening up new avenues for entertainment, productivity, and collaborative experiences. 

Gaming redefines entertainment for the digital generation

Talking about the convergence of digital and real-world content, Joost van Dreunen, renowned games industry expert and professor, highlighted the significance of the gaming industry, a (still somehow) often underestimated yet massive force in the entertainment field. He laid out the recent evolution from traditional product-based models (buying hard copies or cartridges of games) towards services and platforms that emphasise social interaction and community building. This shift is part of a much larger trend, from standalone games towards multifaceted experiences. Gaming is taking on a new role beyond play to now include sharing, creation, and community engagement.

Despite its financial success in most areas, the gaming industry faces a number of challenges such as massive layoffs (as seen in other parts of the tech industry as well) or the struggles of independent studios against rising marketing costs and powerful gatekeepers. However, innovation and collaboration, such as last year’s blockbuster “The Super Mario Bros.” and partnerships between gaming and entertainment giants, are slowly but surely expanding the industry’s scope and integrating it more deeply into our cultural landscape. A great example of pushing traditional boundaries is the partnership between Disney and Epic Games, a collaboration that creates joint immersive experiences from Disney’s beloved theme parks and Epic’s hugely successful Fortnite world.

Another big trend to watch is online multiplayer games, which are becoming increasingly popular and showcase the desire for online community spaces. Games can create meaningful connections and engage users in immersive experiences that blend the online and offline worlds. Consider the phenomenon of Pokémon Go in 2016, where strangers came together to hunt for virtual characters all over the world. Gaming continues to break boundaries. It is a pivotal cultural force, redefining what entertainment can be in the digital age. Because gaming is not just another entertainment industry branch; it’s a revolution in how we can experience, create, and connect with contemporary culture.

This article was first published on Horizont.

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