The key learnings from SXSW 2018, which took place in Austin, Texas in mid-March, were both exciting and challenging. The interactive festival, which has become a thought leadership institution rivaling TED and Davos, is now in its 24th year. The festival is a mecca for the business and lifestyle intelligentsia hoping to stay ahead of, or at least aware of, the brewing societal shifts and technological innovations that will affect both business and culture. SXSW Interactive 2018 presented 11 tracks of intense programing; If you are looking for ideas, SXSW is your beacon.
The Thrill of It All
For festival-goers interested in Tech-Celebrities the thrill peaked with the last-minute addition of Elon Musk on center stage, Other keynotes counter-balanced the all-tech dialogue with presentations by renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel, discussing technology fostered loneliness; philanthropist Melinda Gates speaking of empowering the world’s women in the Me Too moment; and London Mayor Sadiq Kahn, sharing his experiences with online hate. These themes are important bellwethers in the cultural conversation and what’s trending among consumers. As exciting as SXSW is, the paradox of choice (think overstuffed stores) can work against success. Do you want to be distracted by demonstrations of Japanese Sushi Teleportation robots or a massive dancing Kuka robot on the convention center floor, or attend any of the approximately 100 sessions, plus brand activations, plus parties offered each day? Good news, I have curated the festival with a focus on sessions in the Style, and Future Intelligence tracks; both key to trends that will inform and frame retail.
AI Has Achieved Ubiquity, but How Will It Last?
The festival took place just days before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and ironically a session titled: For CMOs Knowledge is Power, was held by Cambridge Analytica’s VP of Sales Tom Jackson. Until the news of the data share by Facebook broke, AI-based marketing built on customer data was considered less of a breakthrough, but more of a commodity. In the United States, it still remains to be seen where this scandal will net out. But in the E.U. the changes to privacy protocols are imminent as the GDPR regulations are scheduled to be enacted in May.
The GDPR regulations and other privacy matters were detailed in a standing-room-only lecture by Amy Webb, author, Strategic Insights Professor at The Stern School of Business at NYU and founder of the Future Today Institute. Webb repeated the often-heard phrase “data is the new oil” but warned that new privacy protocols and legislation could soon be afoot in the United States which may impede the flow of that “oil.” Webb noted that U.S. businesses have done little to no planning for this contingency. Her prediction was made before the Cambridge Analytica revelation. Her profession as a Futurist is apt.
Online privacy legislation is suddenly a hot discussion topic, yet physical privacy is another matter. Webb explained, “Everyone has different capillary patterns under our skin. Emerging Identification technology has been developed to positively confirm our identities through those patterns.” Fingerprints, passwords and iris scans may soon be a thing of the past. A capillary ID scan may be all that is necessary to make a purchase at our preferred retailer or to board a plane.
An Artificial Intelligence innovation that Webb discussed is AI enabled reinforcement learning. At SXSW, Sony gamified this innovation through their Aibo Robo Dog. At the Sony Wow Studio, the perfect Robo-Pup was on display. The dog is trained through reinforcement learning technology. The more love you give this pet, the more the dog amps up the praised behavior. Aibo Pup is equipped with multiple touch sensitive zones, and voice recognition technology to receive approval. While this technology may be coming soon to our retailers to predict and adapt future shopping patterns, your robo-pup can do the same, while also becoming your new robotic best friend.
Webb also discussed innovations in Augmented Reality, noting the number of new AR patents being filed since the release of Magic Leap’s headset in late 2017. She predicted that “by 2021 the revenue in the AR space will be $130 billion. This will happen when wearables and glasses come together.”
A taste of that future fusion was on display at SXSW. The Bose AR Hear What You See experience-activation demo-ed their new prototype AR glasses. The glasses have a built-in speaker that is audible only to the wearer but doesn’t block out the surrounding environment. After the demo, I joined a tour for a Bose Augmented Reality walk down Rainey Street in Austin wearing the glasses which offered an audio navigation of the local bars as we approached them. For any of you who have given up hope on the fulfillment of AR’s promise to be a pervasive device for both marketing and navigating our future lives, rethink your pessimism. As we saw in the original Bladerunner, 2021 is not very far away, and retail is going to have a huge share of the AR experience.
The Style track, brought fashion and retail into focus. Faith and Fashion began with a personal account by Haute Hijab CEO Melanie Elturk. Originally a lawyer, Elturk loved to express herself through her clothes, but as an observant Muslim woman, she could not easily find high-style hijabs in the U.S. and she tired of trying to wrap big neck scarves around her head. To solve the problem, she founded the e-commerce brand in 2010. Now they sell exclusive designs on their site to thousands of fashion oriented Muslim women globally, offering hijab styles with names like: Simply Meowvelous and Blue Suede Muse. This panel was lightly attended, reflecting our cultural moment. The success Haute Hijab has achieved should serve as a signal to retailers and brands about the markets they serve. It is predicted that by the year 2040, the Muslim population will be the dominant global group, and the blossoming rubric of New Majorities will continue to gain relevance as global populations increasingly change in both ethnicity and religion.
Another underserved coterie of fashion consumers addressed at SXSW Style were the disabled. The Hunger Games actress, and prosthetic limb advocate Angel Giuffira, walked the festival demonstrating the usefulness of her custom, prosthetic, robotic arm created by Advanced Arm Dynamics For the fashionable disabled cohort, Grace Jun of Open Style Lab started her organization as an experiment at the MIT Media Lab, and now works in collaboration with The Parsons School of Design. At Open Style Lab, the goal is to educate designers about the needs and demands of the disabled. Jun said, “This is a market worth $65 million, they can and want to spend, and we do not feel that fashion independence should be limited by dexterity.” The lab conducts 10-week sessions that bring together designers, engineers and occupational therapists, pairing them with disabled individuals. A number of designers including Tommy now offer adaptive fashion lines, and the goal is to raise an awareness of the needs of this untapped market, many of whom are big spenders.
SXSW Style also explored over-served customers. In the Faux Real session, Graham Wetzbarger, Chief Authenticator for The Real Real, and Julie Vargas, Director of Digital Solutions for Avery Dennison discussed the $1.7 trillion global counterfeit industry. Faux Real exposed the latest in nefarious counterfeit innovations such as “just in time” counterfeit manufacturing, where the goods are designed, assembled, and shipped to their destinations without any branding. The labels, hardware and tags are sent separately by air freight. Once the items clear customs, they are sent to smaller local factories where the fraudulent labels, tags and hardware are applied, and the items are sent directly to distributors.
To combat this ever-evolving innovation, Wetzbarger and Vargas examined the use of both blockchain verification and RFID tagging. Vargas said Avery Dennison is working with RFID tagging of components. “We are working to distribute the knowledge of every component that goes into the piece, including the identity of the craftsman.” Wetzbarger discussed using blockchain to identify not only the original, but also the owners in the secondary market, offering technological verification of ownership or a “chain of provenance similar to the art market.”
Not All Work and No Play
Bitcoin has had a bumpy ride as of late, but 31sessions included blockchain or Crypto in their descriptors. Other forward-thinking trends were quantum computing, technological ethics and voice activation. The shape of the future came together real-time with HBO’s Westworld Mariposa recreation and in the Google Assistant Fun House, complete with margaritas blended on demand. ”Google, make me a margarita” reminded us all that this festival is not only serious, but has a long tradition of some serious fun and identifying the emerging trends that are going to change our lives. If you want to know what ‘s happening…before what’s happening next, early bird tickets for SXSW 2019 go on sale in early August.