Preparing For Cultural Curveballs At SXSWi

With 24 minutes left, the Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit to beat the Falcons at the Super Bowl. During La La Land’s acceptance speech at the Oscars, it's announced that Moonlight is the actual winner of Best Picture. Pokémon Go came out of nowhere, and our presidential election completely diverged from most polling predictions. Needless to say, it’s been a year of surprises.

That’s the funny thing about culture — it’s entirely predictable in its unpredictability. As a first time SXSWer, I’m excited to see a wide range of speakers showcase their approach to tackling the unexpected. SXSWi is set to be the culmination of my lifelong cultural and technological obsession, providing access to tools, technologies, and insights that can prepare all of us — advertisers and consumers — for culture’s inevitable surprises. So, marketers must pay heed to these three trend territories that will undoubtedly be a focus at SXSWi this year:



1. Autonomous Living

Connected home, connected car, connected refrigerator. We’re witnessing a period in which companies are using the Internet of Things to not only revolutionize appliances and automobiles but also major sectors like food, education, and healthcare. This space is ripe for entrance as there are few things that consumers value more than having their lives made easier through seamless connections and addictive experiences. Look out for sessions like "Connected Cities, Hackable Streets" and "Navigating a Rapidly Changing and Connected World" to hear top publications and tech conglomerates discuss how advertisers can further hop on the “connected world” bandwagon.

Chatbots are also shaping up to be a major topic at SXSWi as they fundamentally change the way that consumers interact with brands, both from a messaging and commerce perspective. In "Ready Or Not, The Bots Have Risen!," Amazon and Yahoo will cover the importance of inter-platform interaction and collaboration in order to bring about the best consumer experiences in this category. Bots are becoming smarter, too, thanks to the brilliant minds behind the latest AI technologies. The “Augmented Intelligence: The Next-Gen AI” session will broach the robot vs. human debate, emphasizing how AI enables objective decision-making in the workplace (though it’s still dependent on human intuition for growth). 

2. Mixed Reality

Mixed reality is by no means new to the innovation space, but the companies you see at SXSWi have the unique opportunity to bring virtual and augmented reality to the next level through storytelling. As the prevalence of VR hardware such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Oculus continues to grow, VR experiences are starting to become more of a norm in households across the country. In fact, on Christmas, some of the most downloaded apps in Apple’s App Store were VR experiences. And, "VR apps" and "VR games” among the top trending searches the next day.

Building on VR’s growing audience, Oculus’ Eugene Wei and the NBA’s Jeff Marsilo will lead “What is the Future of Sports VR?” in reference to their critically acclaimed VR short documentary about the NBA finals. It’s becoming all about the strength of storytelling in the virtual world with Hollywood insiders examining high-quality interactive VR content in "Hollywood Goes VR."

And we haven’t seen the full extent of this channel’s possibilities, so to learn more about the future of this budding medium, advertisers should attend “What Will AR/VR Revolutionize Next?” to hear thoughts from both Google and Oculus.

3. The Intersection of Politics & Brands

We can’t have this type of an election season and not have political motifs be a hot topic at SXSWi, right? That’s why health tech and privacy, LGBTQ and gender equality, and cannabis legislation have all been woven into sessions at the festival. Whether it’s musicians, filmmakers, or tech leaders sharing their perspectives, everyone’s working to influence and push their industries in a positive direction. And as public perception around some of these issues change, marketers need to stay on top of it.

For example, 23andMe will talk about the concerns surrounding digital health data and products in “Privacy in Emerging Health Technologies.” Meanwhile, Intel plans to do the same, while illustrating how AI can advance treatment in “AI for Good: Precision Medicine.” The panel for “Virtual Life’s a Drag: Queering VR” will voice the parallels between VR and the LGBTQ community, and attendees will learn from the hosts of "Breaking the Grass Ceiling: Women, Weed & Business” about the prominent role of women in the cannabis industry. Finally, SXSWi will host top female leaders in empowering sessions like “The Rise in Female Led New Ventures,” “Why Women in Tech Matter,” and “Empowering a Billion Women by 2020.”

Needless to say, I’m beyond excited to see how these industry leaders approach challenges when looking to further grow their category. Because ultimately, the best response to culture’s unknowns is through well-informed preparation. Attendees will leave Austin better equipped with tools and thought-starters to catalyze their own category impact, despite any cultural curveballs along the way.

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