Al Harris, Senior Strategist

Everyone does SXSW a little differently. The 20+ sessions per hour format makes it so a conference-goer has to really weigh his or her options while trying to take content and speaker credentials into account. It’s no easy task!

As a SXSW first-timer, I had to develop a strategy, which I’d sum up as “mostly consumer research-focused futurism with a dash of UX/UI.”

Sound interesting? I thought so, too. And, some really compelling stories emerged. Here are three of them.

1. The robot uprising has begun (but we’re not doomed for a while).
Much of the talk at SXSW 2016 focused on the subject of artificial intelligence and questions about the future of machines in all facets of life.

The buzz around AI tech – not to be confused with machine learning, of course – was only amplified by the epic battle of man vs machine taking place in South Korea at the same time as SXSWi. While Google’s AlphaGo was busy dispatching of the world champion Go player Lee Sedol, the tech stars at SXSW talked about the next 10 years of AI in the workplace, healthcare, and home. Often they were asked if this singular event marked the beginning of machine’s triumph over man, and what dangers continued development of AI might pose – a topic hotly debated by the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates.


But, at least one noted expert in all things robots and AI pointed out that humans don’t have as much to worry about as the media might have you think.

“People overestimate robotic intelligence.” – Rodney Brooks (CTO reThink Robotics, iRobot)

One of the most relevant (and practical) conversations around AI centered on the use of intelligent bots in the growing bevvy of websites and apps that use messaging as part of a service.

Bots are already being deployed in numerous industries- everything from therapy (Lark) to front-line customer service for thousands of companies in China via WeChat and, realistically, could have a significant impact on staffing, support and a company’s bottom line in the near future.

2. A color-blind, gender agnostic, hyperactive generation is your future market.
The next generation of consumers will have marketers fighting for every millisecond of their goldfish-like attention spans. The so-called Generation Z (Gen Z) group was a topic of conversation as brands, marketers and media companies prophesized about the ways in which they would coo this massive group of up & coming consumers.


Gen Z is made up of those born between the mid 1990s and early 2010s; and, boy are there a lot of them. Roughly 25% of the U.S. population, in fact. Some of this group’s key attributes were particularly sticky points of conversation:

  • Shorter attention spans – Growing up with technology, fast-format video & TV has made their ability to focus on one thing almost non-existent. Hence why new age marketing channels like YouTube are proving to be so popular with this generation.
  • Mobile first & maybe only – Surprise surprise, this is the iPhone generation. PopSugar informed the SXSW audience that these consumers are twice as likely to shop online from their smartphone as their millennial counterparts.
  • Influencer driven – Possibly one of the most valuable insights into this generation comes from the fact they seem to generate their own idols. No longer are movie stars the big trend-setters. This generation has made the words “YouTube Star” & “Instagram Celebrity” a very real thing. Influencer marketing seems to be a way to steal their attention, at least for a moment, and will likely become a core component of any Gen Z-focused campaign.
  • Display advertising is dead (to them) – You heard that right. Early studies are showing that this mobile-first generation isn’t clicking your ads. In fact, they’re not even noticing them, which will require more authentic solutions like influencer marketing and native executions to catch their attention.
  • Messaging just got more important – Gen Z-ers’ hunger for lightning fast interaction also applies to customer service. They’re so used to instant gratification that they want their interactions with brands to get to the point (fast). They’re far more likely to use online chatting to interact directly with brands.
  • Already taking over – Lastly, and probably most important to what’s happening RIGHT NOW is that Gen Z is already having an effect on commerce. Studies are pointing towards Gen Zers having a high degree of influence on family purchasing decisions already. Whew, that was fast.

One major caveat with this group is that much of it is still very young, so it’s likely we’ll see their preferences evolve significantly in the next few years as they gain more life experience, spending power and influence over decision-making in their daily lives.

3. A virtual world awaits.
This year’s SXSW might as well have happened in virtual reality, because just about every major brand had some sort of VR play running.

“Come ride the VR roller coaster,” beckoned Samsung. “Fly a plane through space,” called Krush. “Take a trip to Mars & drive our rover,” teased NASA.


Just about everybody and their mother had some sort of take on VR this year, with (sometimes literally) a veritable bus-full of different gadgets and gizmos designed to transport you to another dimension.

Let’s see if we can run through them all:

  • Oculus Rift
  • Samsung Gear
  • HTC Vive
  • Google Cardboard
  • Samsung Entrium4D
  • Microsoft Hololens (though technically more AR than VR)
  • PlaystationVR
  • And we definitely missed a few

A few big announcements included Playstation launching a VR headset in October and Samsung debuting a strange device called the Entrium4D, which is essentially a pair of immersive headphones that can generate physical feelings of motion. All of this, of course, is on top of the mass release of the Oculus Rift earlier this month.

For the last few years, these devices sounded more gimmick than reality. But, if anything, this SXSW proved that brands and developers are taking this sci-fi-esque channel more seriously than ever and are actually looking for mass applications to activate consumers.




Al Harris

Al Harris Senior Strategist