Everywhere you walk in downtown Austin, Texas, new names compete for the attention of the tens of thousands wandering the SXSW Interactive festival. Which of this year's emerging ideas and brands — MakerBot, Leap Motion, Geomagic — will break into mainstream consciousness? Here's a quick rundown of the conversation topics in coffee lines, and some notes on appearances and panels that caught our attention:
Beyond The Keyboard And Mouse
Gamers are used to devices like Xbox Kinect that read our body's waving and swiping motions. Now, hardware companies like Leap Motion are taking that Kinect interface and making it more useful and affordable. The goal? To make consumer tools — desktop experiences, for instance — more like toys. On display in tents and at the expo are devices on desktop monitors that read your motions in real time and respond, doing complex 3-D graphics modeling and math as you move. Companies hope this interaction will change the way consumers work. "People are thirsty for interaction beyond the keyboard and mouse," said Chris Silva, an industry analyst.
No fewer than five panels at SXSW Interactive are focused on the "quantified self" movement, and what it means for culture and health. Technology has brought about a wave of interest in devices such as the FuelBand and Fit Bit — wearable sensor devices that allow users to track metrics like steps per day and heart rate. But more serious self-trackers are going beyond counting their steps. Up-and-coming tracking devices include blood glucose meters in your iPhone, and bras that can detect signs of breast cancer. "[Self-trackers] are incredible, disruptive pioneers in a space with long-standing consequences that will be able to help us find diseases and potentially save lives," said Lisa Kennedy, chief marketing officer for GE's Healthymagination initiative.
3-D Printing Popularity
3-D printing technology has reached the point where it is expected to upend traditional manufacturing. The technology lets users design an item on a computer and actually print it out in 3-D. Entrepreneurs behind the printers, like industry favorite MakerBot, say there may come a day when you no longer have to go to the store to buy certain items like mugs or phone cases — you'll be able to just make them at home and print them out.
Among the celebrity entrepreneurs in the 3-D printing field is Ping Fu, who gave one of the most inspiring talks at SXSW. Fu is a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution whose biological parents were sent to exile in a remote area. She says that before she could finish college in China, she was told to leave or be killed. Fu immigrated to the U.S., got a degree in computer science, and went on to, among other things, found Geomagic, one of the hottest companies in 3-D printing. Fu took the stage at SXSW wearing a 3-D printed scarf and a pair of 3-D printed shoes. The company is about to release a printer that you can buy for $1,299. Fu says that in three years she expects the price of the printer to drop below $500, and she expects that it will keep dropping so everyone will have one at home.
Beyond A Work-Life Balance
Writer and mom Anne-Marie Slaughter started a nationwide debate with an Atlantic piece last summer called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" — arguing that American society doesn't value caregiving enough for women to be able to have a career and a family. During a packed session at SXSW on Saturday, Slaughter called for men to get in on the push to value caregiving more, because giving men more choices like paid parental leave, flexible working hours and more reliable child-care options allows women to have more choices. "We systematically disadvantage caregivers everywhere," Slaughter said. "We gotta say to guys, 'You get to be more engaged fathers. You get to have more time at home and more flexible time' [so moms can work]."
Sure, Steve Carell and Jim Carrey can be seen premiering movies or eating at restaurants at this high-wattage festival. But perhaps the hottest celebrity at SXSW isn't even human. Grumpy Cat, a kitty famous for the meme that exploded around her, was so popular that the line to get a photo with her wrapped around a city block. Even Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley sneaked in line to get a shot with the famous feline. It's a testament to the power of Internet memes in American culture — a topic of several wonky panels throughout the festival.