It seems that we’ve finally passed the point of expecting some sort of big breakout hit to come out of SXSWi. With its size and scope most of the concern of attendees was focused on dealing with the usual long lines for highly featured speakers and panels, snagging the invites for secret parties or waiting on even longer lines for the sponsored ones. On top of this, its become clear that with no-one wanting to try anything remotely daring outside of SXSW approved events, ((homeless hotspots anyone? (and by the way it looks like they worked)), we’re left with the organizers to try and create the foundation or groundwork from which we might find the next big, or little, thing.
The problem with this of course, is that much of the programming for SXSW was sealed pretty much six months ahead of the festival, which means that the “latest and greatest” breakout hit may already have happened. This pretty much seemed to be the case looking at the lineup of keynote speakers: Bre Pettis from MakerBot, Elon Musk, Tina Rosenberg and Julia Uhrman of OUYA. What did all of these speakers have in common? At the core of their offering and interest is the strong theme of creating physical products in a digital age. Nowhere among these high profile speakers was a new killer mobile app or a hot new social network. In fact there wasn’t really much “New”. Pettis and Musk did manage to inject some serious new into their presentations. Pettis by announcing MakerBot’s new prototype 3D scanner and Musk by showing off this amazing freshly minted, video of a reusable SpaceX rocket practicing a short take-off and landing. But without the pull of a breakout hit it seemed to me that a theme of physical applications to digital technologies had become at least a major thread this year. Here’s a few of the strings:
It started for me in a Friday Healthcare App session with a questioner who asked about how the presenters were planning to take “Big Sensor” into account. Big Sensor? I’d been hearing plenty about Big Data, but this was the first I heard about defining a more specific subset of it as the massive and rapidly growing amount of sensor data available. In the new world of the quantified self where we, and perhaps our doctors, are all tracking our own information, sensors from fit-bits to blood meters to some scary workplace motion tracking sensors are becoming the physical appendages of data networks. Their growing use is creating a deeper need for developing a more designed approach that can integrate how we use sensor data, how we control it and how we can take advantage of it while retaining privacy and humanity.
The day following Elon Musk’s presentation I went to a far more sparsely attended session that took Musk’s approach to physical production and turned it on its head. Local Motors is a company I had heard about before from via Neil Perkin, who has championed its crowdsourced approach to automobile production. What’s impressive about Local Motors is their ability to leverage a worldwide network of enthusiasts, experts and professionals, connected by software, to design, develop, build and constantly improve a complex physical product i.e. an automobile. While their Rally Fighter is in production and street legal in the US, they are also developing a limited edition pizza delivery vehicle for Domino’s pizza and natural gas powered concept cars for Shell. But the most impressive part of their story was how they worked with DARPA to concept a vehicle for specific requirements in Afghanistan. The result, the XC2V went from concept to delivery in 14 weeks an amazingly short period of time for vehicle, or any sort of, government procurement project.
Listening to the Local Motors story it became clear theirs is a case of hardware learning from software. By using the distributed model of design they are able to use over 35,000 employees, by adapting Agile and Lean approaches of startups to their, related, Toyota Production System they are able to produce limited editions of automobiles, that are limited for the purposes of continuous improvement. The approach is to build 1,000 vehicles and then pause and optimize instead of the expense and hassle of the traditional mass model. All of this goes to the way that hardware is rapidly becoming more customized and customizable to a defined user experience. We’ve all gotten used to software that can be tweaked and refined to our specific needs, hardware is now rapidly approaching these same capabilities.
Leap Motion wasn’t new to me, but it rapidly became one of the smaller scale breakouts of the show, even though its product had been announced and on pre-order since at least December. The biggest reason for this lies in one of the critical differences between physical and digital adoption, hands on experience. Leap had set up a tent for attendees to sample the controller and the lines outside the tent, along with a presentation by its founders, created a strong word of mouth buzz around the product.
What the Leap controller represents is another step in the growing world of gestural interfaces. Kinect got this off and running, but Leap takes it a number of steps forward especially when you consider its price, small form factor and ability to connect with multiple systems. What Leap also brings is a new relationship between physical and digital and the promise to interface with them in the same way. It also begins to ask serious questions about our basic device controllers such as buttons, keyboards and menus, but ultimately it starts blending the gap between physical and digital in ways that I am looking forward to imagining.
There were more examples of the deeper blending of the physical and into the digital landscapes, most notably full scale replica of NASA’s James Webb telescope, but one of my favorites brought it back to how marketing might start to use this combination in a far more interesting way than QR codes. During their presentation called Art Copy & Code, Google demonstrated some interesting and whimsical directions for marketers that start blending digital and physical to create more personal communications experiences. My favorite was this version of an arduino enabled basketball shoe that talked trash to its owner:
A funny, and admittedly very early, attempt at bringing advertisers into the new environment connecting digital and physical. But when you consider how hardware is making so many small, innovative advances on so many fronts its hard to imagine that we won't wake up soon to a new normal where connected communications is part of the physical world all around us.