SXSW 2018 Preview

On the face of it, the SXSW is a pretty poor deal. You spend 12 hours on a plane and then rush around downtown Austin with 30,000 other lunatics for a week to listen to lectures and panels in air-conditioned 80s-style conference rooms. Doesn’t sound very inspiring. For me, the conference is nevertheless one of the absolute highlights of the year, because you’d be hard pressed to find a higher concentration of excellent speakers on current trends in the digital world. Read about the topics and lectures I am particularly looking forward to below.

Digitisation has arrived in society

In recent years it has become apparent that the times when you had guaranteed attention with the next hype platform or app in the market are over. The issues have no longer been revolving around digital services or the marketing behind them for a while now, because digitisation currently covers all areas of life. The impact of this process on society, working life, health and urban development will be the dominant themes of the conference, as they were in 2017. The same goes for the demand for specific solutions that include new technologies in product development and the creative process.

The perennial favourites: VR, AR & AI

Virtual reality continues to be a hot topic, especially in the creative industries. While the search for meaningful application scenarios outside the niche continues, augmented reality is preparing to make the breakthrough into a modern storytelling tool suitable for the mass market.

AI, on the other hand, is much more established: Data as the DNA of the modern world and ever better algorithms promise automation and increased efficiency in many areas. But how much of this will find its way into consumers’ everyday lives? Amazon Echo & Google Home are now in millions of homes, but currently lead a sorrowful existence as glorified light switches and Bluetooth speakers for Spotify. What do the truly smart assistants of the future look like in comparison? And how are various industry pioneers already using AI today for communication, data analysis or product development?

Blockchain self-awareness

This year’s theme for tech conferences is probably inevitable: the blockchain. The flagship project Bitcoin has evolved from a democratic, borderless payment system into an investment bubble for dauntless investors. But there is tremendous potential in the technology behind it. How will smart contracts and transaction-based systems change our economic life, business processes and, ultimately, marketing? Ethereum co-inventor Joseph Lubin has titled his lecture “Why Ethereum Is Going To Change The World” and the other actors in the blockchain business are not lacking in self-awareness. It will be interesting!

Gaming & eSports

Representatives of the gaming and eSports world are also confidently taking an increasingly prominent place at SXSW. Often ridiculed by outsiders, gaming has now become a dominant force in the entertainment industry. The professionalisation of the eSports scene reached new heights in 2017 with millions invested in tournaments and teams. So if you’re still around in the second week of the conference, you should drop in on the lectures of SXSW Gaming. It could be interesting to see what the industry’s ROI expectations look like and what opportunities there are in marketing.

Problem children start-ups & disrupting dystopia

In contrast, the start-up scene in Silicon Valley is experiencing a bit of a crisis. At last year’s elevator pitches, every second comment was “Nice idea, but what are you going to do in three months’ time when Zuckerberg copies you?” The stifling market position of the Big Four has noticeably cooled the willingness of investors to provide seed capital for new start-ups. How can start-ups continue to raise capital to make their ideas a reality and grow in a world dominated by Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple?

A few months after the Trumpocalypse, the mood in 2017 was somewhat gloomy, a rather atypical level of self-reflection for the industry. In our enthusiasm for the digitisation of all areas of life, have we underestimated the risks of a fully networked and automated world? What will be left of the quiet self-doubt in 2018? The closing keynote from SciFi author & SXSW bedrock Bruce Sterling is likely to be an excellent barometer. An hour-long rant with subtle peaks against the self-loving tech and marketing scene will surely be a highlight once again. A fitting title for 2018: Disrupting Dystopia.

Away from the lectures

In addition to the lectures and panels at the conference, the event spaces of the numerous brands and companies will be another highlight. Exciting from a German point of view: the presence of Mercedes-Benz. The joint focus of the me Convention during the IAA had already indicated far-reaching cooperation with SXSW. Mercedes and Smart are now on the starting line in Austin as super sponsors and are hosting their own lectures and events on the topic of Future Mobility in Palm Park, right next to the Convention Centre.

In addition, visits to the brand locations of the Japanese electronics giants Sony and Panasonic are also likely to be worthwhile. In 2017, Panasonic exhibited numerous prototypes developed in cooperation with students on the subject of the Smart Home. Sony, on the other hand, devoted itself to VR.

The large number of lectures, panel discussions, pop-up locations and the numerous events off the official program make planning your SXSW visit a challenge. When you think back to your time in Austin on your flight home, you often realize that the most exciting lectures were those you caught by chance, that the best Brand Lounge was one where you just happened to be passing by and you only met the most interesting people because they were standing next to you in the endless queues. Resisting the temptation to plan everything in advance makes a visit to SXSW all the more interesting.

The Next Reality

Thinking about buying a new TV? Ah, the excitement! Measuring the living room, looking for the right place where it could fit, or choosing the color of the bezel, the right resolution, figuring out the necessary connectivity options and brightness? And if the couch you will be sitting on watching TV has the right viewing distance, because you don’t want to watch a football game without being able to recognize the players, do you? If you are not dealing with decisions like this right now, chances are you did in the past or you are going to do it in the future. Let’s face it, it’s inevitable, just like most things that are coming our way, the future is worth talking about, so let’s focus on this concept of time right now: The Future.

In the not so distant future, you most likely won’t have to deal with decisions like this at all. Not because of the breakthrough in projection technology, not because TV will become obsolete, nor because manufacturers will die out and Apple or Netflix will take over the TV game (well, that is happening anyways); it’s because you will be able to watch TV on a screen any desired size, anywhere and anytime you want – not just on your comfy couch at home. The magic behind that is a thing called augmented (AR) or mixed (MR) or even virtual reality (VR), but only in its final form. The final form of media. The final form of consuming content. The final form of entertainment. The end game.

So let’s focus on the present for a minute: there are a couple of VR devices out there, and most of them are pretty nerdy; you probably heard of names like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR or Samsung Gear VR. Manufacturers gaining momentum in creating the device to end all other devices – no wonder, since VR hardware is supposed to earn $17.8 billion by 2020. By the way, Samsung has sold more VR headsets in 2016 than Oculus, HTC and Playstation combined, namely 4.51 million pieces. And a lot has already been achieved with them: High resolution: check. Variety of content: check. Availability of devices: check. A cure to motion sickness while using it: check. Even motion, movement and eye tracking has been conquered not so long ago, getting VR one step closer to be a realistic experience in an unrealistic, digital environment. But one crucial thing is still missing, and all of the current solutions are not even close in delivering it: ease of use. A no-fuzz device. A device for people who are not expert gamers or scientists or enthusiasts. Something you can put on your head without having to connect a cord, a battery back or a head strap. Easy as putting on your shades and unlocking your smartphone.

Some manufacturers are still trying to mimic the success story of smartphone development, because it is their field of expertise, and it worked already in the past: increase screen resolution, add a new camera, mix it with a better microprocessor, a newer software version, and a dash of some weird new experiential technology. But baby steps are for babies, in a saturated market walking slow is not an option anymore: we don’t need another device that’s slightly faster and better looking than the other one. We need a breakthrough. We need something to control our movements in a virtual world, that feels like the real world. We need a way to trick our brain into thinking we really are standing next to a lava stream or inside an imperial hangar from Star Wars, awaiting the devastating blow out of the Death Star’s Superlaser instead of knowing all the way that it’s all just a game.

So back to our initial question, adding some more amazing stuff: You want to turn your living room into a dark dungeon to hunt zombies? You got it. You want to measure your new fridge and see if it fits in this impossible slot in your kitchen? Done. You want to have a look at the interior of your new car in life-size, standing in the middle of your bedroom? Sure thing. Or you just want to watch the final episode of your favorite TV show in your garden, on a huge canvas, and next to it keep track of a hockey playoff game that happens to run at the same time, on a smaller screen – and all of this together with your friends? Yes. That is the future I’m talking about. And the end or at least a fundamental change in the field of consumer electronics.

If the rumors are true, the first company to deliver something like this is called Magic Leap. Quote: “This technology could affect every business that uses screens or computers and many that don’t. It could kill the $120 billion market for flat-panel displays and shake the $1 trillion global consumer-electronics business to its core.” Says David Erwalt from Forbes Magazine. And he is right: if this thing kicks off and has finally a release date and price, it will change everything we know about consuming digital media in an instant. So maybe you should hold off on that purchase of a new TV set for now. The future is just a (magic) leap away.

Mobile World Congress 2017 – Barcelona calling.

As digital specialists we get to work in an exciting environment. New, technology-driven topics are part of everyday life for us. Trade fairs like CES, MWC etc. are a Mecca for innovation. For what’s important. For relentless progress. The most important event on the calendar for all mobile technology enthusiasts kicks off once more today with the Mobile World Congress (MWC). Just like last year I will rush through the halls – searching for new ideas, the most exotic, exciting gadgets, system solutions and digital products as well as, of course, interesting discussions. Face-to-face and fully analogue.

I am expecting that the MWC will focus on the following five trends:

  • Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence
  • Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality
  • Internet of Things and Smart Homes
  • Shy Techs
  • Robots

Many of these topics featured prominently at the trade fair last year too. What will be exciting is to see where the technologies are heading in the future – and when they will become commonplace in our everyday lives.

1) Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence

Chatbots are an exciting example of how a rather minor trend topic – since such a simple bot is ultimately constructed relatively quickly – develops into something of much greater relevance. Chatbots fulfil the wishes of consumers to quickly and easily access information that is tailored precisely to their personal needs and is available whenever and wherever. However, the simple interface alone will by no means be enough. The systems only become powerful when the accuracy of the responses is optimised by CRM, product and other database connections. A chatbot has to be able to address communication histories with the customer and learn constantly. It will be exciting to see which system solutions will be offered at MWC and which environments will be used to demonstrate chatbots. A social media messenger is ultimately just one of many possible applications.

2) Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality

It is really overwhelming to see the hardware that has been launched on the market in this field over the past year. Virtual reality became reality in 2016. New gadgets have spurred our imagination and given us a foretaste of the future. No question. These exciting times are set to continue with providers like Samsung having already announced many new developments that are to be presented at MWC. Sensational opportunities are waiting to be discovered in selected areas. But even if companies like Oculus, HTC etc. are recording increased sales in the area of True, that is to say fully immersive, VR, really wide-scale availability is not yet achievable. It is the brand stagings at the POS or at trade fairs that are the most exciting at present from a marketing perspective. In terms of certain aspects anyhow.
Augmented reality has also not made the major breakthrough as yet. Even if this was promised by so many owing to a short-lived but fierce battle with Pokémon Go. Most players had probably not activated the camera anyway when playing. And HoloLens also is primarily a great problem solver for a couple of individual application scenarios – for example in the framework of training measures. The focus at the moment though is still on “one-offs”.
However, I am really excited to see whether a real augmented reality breakthrough can be achieved here at MWC (or at an upcoming Apple Keynote?). The usability of these functions from a system perspective can all of a sudden provide the breakthrough in terms of real availability and exciting services. In a time when basically all information is already provided with a spatial coordinate, this information can also be linked with the camera function. Additional information on locations, on a person you are talking to or individual products as basic features – now that would be something!

3) Internet of Things & Smart Homes

No question. Anything that can be wired will be wired. CES and MWC will also compete in this sense for the most amazing products. But what else is left other than to wire hairbrushes? All will be revealed… With all of this absurdity, however, we should not forget that there are definitely exciting applications in the area of home automation. There’s no going back once the wireless speakers are established in your living room. And if you’re not sure if you switched off the lights, the oven or the hob, a quick look at the smart home app will ease your mind. Whether or not you are already signed up for all of this: just say you notice that toilet paper stocks are running low and can order supplies on the spot, then the entire household will benefit. These functions and others will increasingly – and, quite understandably – find their way into our homes.

4) Shy Techs

At the end of the day, most people simply want an easier working environment and a seamless living environment. This is the case even if they are not technology nerds. The term Shy Tech seems to aptly describe such people. No keyboards, not even monitors are absolutely necessary to control functions or retrieve information. Amazon has taken an initial giant step in this direction with “Echo”. Google Home is set to follow and Apple is planning to continue developing Siri, probably more likely with the iPhone as hardware than with its own loudspeaker. Great, if everything works smoothly. An army of clever bots will support us comprehensively.
At this point at the latest, a little reflection is always needed: where will the data actually be stored, where can I find information about this? Can the practice of law really keep up if product development is entering new grey areas or completely uncharted waters every day? Developing ideas and content for these systems is certainly the right thing to do. But maybe we should start off with cookery recipes and not immediately have medical records read aloud to us by these voice control systems. In any case, I am expecting to see every conceivable application at MWC. It will be interesting!

5) Robots

If Alexa and Siri learn to walk in the course of the digital evolution then robots will probably be the final outcome. Already last year you could use a smartphone to roll small robotic balls through an empty apartment and use integrated cameras to keep an eye on the apartment even from the café or play with the cat. Smartphone-based control is likely to stay, but the robots inside the rolling balls will probably unveil themselves as fully-fledged robots for use in the home. I am very excited to see what innovations will emerge in this area. Maybe I’ll meet “Kuri”, the small Bosch robot, or one of its fellow species. Apart from the quite legitimate question that Bill Gates recently asked as to whether taxes would not have to be levied on commercially used robots in the future to compensate for any impending decline in revenues from income tax, robots will probably become established somewhat slowly in our private everyday lives.
After all, I still prefer it when I can ask a human for directions in the shopping centre as opposed to a robot. And I am not alone in this. That’s why we have to take a step back from all of the euphoria that surrounds trade fairs like MWC. Our goal is to support our customers optimally in ensuring they are successful and equipped for the future. We keep an eye on all trends, analyse, make recommendations and advise. It’s not about being the fastest at implementing new technologies, rather finding the best and most suitable solution for the customer. Even if this sometimes means initially forsaking the latest hype.

More information and pictures from the Mobile World Congress can be found on Tumblr: