Power Of Innovation On Full Display At SXSW

I was at SXSW in Austin this last week -- and like anyone who’s ever attended this festival of tech glitterati, one can’t help feel a rejuvenation of hope for a better future. The sheer invention and ingenuity on display literally at every turn is truly something to behold.

Take Daniel Burwen of Cognito Comics. Colleagues of mine from Pathbrite and I were sitting at a table in the lobby of the Austin Convention Center on Thursday, when Burwen wandered up to tell us about the graphic novel he’d created for the iPad. When we expressed some interest, he showed us what he’d created. I was blown away -- I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

Burwen’s come up with a brilliant way to partially animate static comic book art, augmenting it with real-world archival artifacts such as video of old newsreels. His particular creation is the story of how the CIA toppled the monarchy of Iran in the middle of the last century, which led to the theocracy that’s in power today.  (As it turns out, the same process he spent four years developing to create his novel is available for any business or creative endeavor to use, by contracting with Burwen.)



Or how about the clever campaign by PR firm Waggener Edstrom and ad agency tenfour called Tweet-a-Beer, in which any individual can buy a beer for anyone with a Twitter handle for $5.  By connecting your Twitter and PayPal accounts, you can virtually buy an actual beer for anyone whose attention you may wish to secure. (Apparently, news reporters attending and covering SXSW have been the luckiest targets for beer-tweeters -- though not this columnist, sadly.)

Square was working the streets at the Foodspotting Street Food Fest, which featured a variety of Austin’s best culinary food trucks. (By using your debit or credit card via a Square reader to pay -- most of which were attached to either an iPhone and/or an iPad -- you could get 50% off the purchase of your food.  I got an amazing cupcake.) One of the major themes of the conference was the idea that mobile payments are about to explode, and Square clearly intends to be a major beneficiary of the trend.

There was also a veritable who’s who of superstars, tech and otherwise. For instance, I attended a standing room-only interview of Vic Gundotra, who is the guy at Google responsible for Google+, by Guy Kawasaki of Alltop. Though not much new ground was plowed, Gundotra did talk at some length about Google's goal to make ads out of content, and his goal to ensure such ads are always relevant. Which means Google needs to know enough about you to serve you these new kinds of ads accurately and appropriately. Google+ is making this increasingly possible.

Kawasaki expressed concern that Google would start inserting these new ads in places where they might not be welcome.  Gundotra said Google's approach is to present an ad at the moment of commercial intent. Google can now better discern when we're at such a moment (versus, say, when we may be sharing pictures of a family member's newborn baby) and can therefore (theoretically, anyway) serve us ads only when they would be most welcome in the user interface.

Another example of star power: the team from Bravo’s “Top Chef” also held a sold-out session featuring host Tom Colicchio, programming executive Andy Cohen, producer Dave Serwatka, and marketing execs Aimee Vile and Lisa Hsia. They talked about how they used a “trans-media” approach to launch an online adjunct to “Top Chef” called “Last Chance Kitchen”, in which show cast-offs get a second chance at winning. 

Using online broadcasts, Twitter, Facebook and blogging, this cross-functional team was able to better engage an enthusiastic audience and increase viewership of the flagship show. In their words, they took a once-per-week broadcast and turned it into a seven-day-a-week phenomenon using a content marketing approach online. Their key takeaway: Break down the silos that prevent a true integration of programming, online and offline channels, and social media, to get a better and broader audience engagement.

SXSWi is truly a showcase of everything that’s possible when creativity, ingenuity and hard work are combined with sheer talent. As Joi Ito, Director of MIT's Media Lab, put it: “We strive for three things when we undertake a project: uniqueness, massive scale, and magic.” By the looks of things, Media Lab's not the only one.

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