Published on April 2nd, 2012 | by Rita0
SXSW 2012: Interactive and Then Some
It’s nearly impossible to follow new music or new software developments in this country and not be aware of South By Southwest, the massive two-week long conference held in Austin, Texas every March. Thousands of computer geeks, film buffs and musicians (almost all masquerading as hipsters) descend on Austin, all hungry for the latest and greatest in gaming, programming, music and film. SXSW 2012 didn’t disappoint, either, and certainly not when it came to variety.
This year, instead of weighing badge-holders down with paper media in their swag bag, a smartphone app was developed that was updated daily. SXSocial also launched, as a place to keep track of your calendar, know where the parties are, and when it was all going down. It was a good concept, and reasonably well executed, save for a few bugs in the app that made saving your calendar preferences a bit difficult. An update for the app was released almost immediately after the conference began and the bug was noticed. It was impressive thatWomzit the creator of the app, was able to get it rolled out so fast.
The schedule is overwhelming, to say the least. My SXSW experience actually started months before the event got underway. Hours went into reading through the different talks, and trying to figure out how best to see everything I wanted to see, in a way that didn’t have us trying to be in three different places at once.
Interactive at SXSW is becoming one of the preeminent conferences for the gaming and tech industries. Attendance this year was well into the thousands, giving the Music part of SXSW a run for it’s money. I’m certain almost everyone reading this has benefited from an innovation stemming from the event at one point or another, as WordPress is just one example of a successful “offspring”.
If you were lucky (more on this in a moment), you had the opportunity to hear all kinds of speakers, from keynote addresses from people like Baratunde Thurston, of The Onion, Joss Whedon, or Kevin Smith. Anthony Bourdain was also among the easily recognizable names on the speaker list, along with several others from The Food Network. The talks were organized by type, theme and level. There were hands-on workshops, meet-ups specifically for networking, job talks and inspirational talks. With so many speakers, attendees have the opportunity to be choosy about who they hear. But if you don’t like what you’re getting, there are 100 other talks going on at the same time, you have your pick.
It seemed a bit as if the organizers of SXSW were somewhat unprepared for the number of people with badges, and possibly with the weather in March. Forty degree temps and rain (somewhat uncharacteristic for spring in Austin) were the order of business for nearly the entire Interactive portion of the festival. This meant that nearly every conference attendee found themselves packed into the convention center, instead of comfortably being able to move in and out of the buildings and hotels. The trade show floor, which didn’t open until the fourth day of the conference and also occupies the bulk of the space at the convention center, was closed off to be set up. We were left with cramped quarters, packed with thousands of attendees. It was nearly impossible to tell where the lines to get into talks started or stopped.
The lines! Probably the single largest complaint with the Interactive portion of the festival, was an complete lack of any system to tell how many people might be attending a talk. There was no RSVP system in place, and often talks for very popular speakers were held in bafflingly small rooms. For instance, Joss Whedon gave a talk in a conference room that could accommodate a couple hundred people, at best. Once the room was full, anyone who stood in line for the talk was simply turned away, and if you wanted even a chance of hearing the talk, you had to get in line early. There were times when you could spend far too much time in line, foregoing other talks- only to be turned away at the door.
That being said, the talks we did attend were always interesting or entertaining. My favorite was probably hearing Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me If You Can fame, tell his story. By the end, there was barely a dry eye in the room.
We visited the Screenburn Arcade, where the latest and greatest in video games were being showcased. The trade show had booths from Canon and Nikon, LifeProof, WordPress, Media Temple, and some fun start-ups like Cinetics, and LifeDots who would love to give Facebook a run for their money. We even managed to squeeze in a Third Eye Blind concert at ACL Live in the Moody Theater. We took a bike ride over to see theGoogle Village , and passed one or two of the now-famous controversial homeless person hotspots.
Later in the week, once the hustle and bustle of Interactive was over we also took advantage of some of the free shows offered during the music part of the week. We saw Counting Crows at Auditorium Shores, heard countless bands in different bars and just walking and biking through downtown. Probably my favorite part of the week was getting to see the screening of Big Easy Express, followed by an outstanding concert with Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and Mumford and Sons. Every show we saw featured new music from each of the bands, which is well worth looking forward to!
A word to the wise, for any of you hoping to attend next year’s SXSW, we strongly recommend booking your hotel rooms now. Many attendees book for the next year while they are staying there. It can not be stressed enough how quickly rooms get booked up. We stayed with the fine folks at The Brava House and The Adams House, and we also skipped the car rental in favor of bike rentals from Mellow Johnny’s. As an extremely bikeable city, we can’t recommend this particular strategy enough. Traffic, both personal and cab, can be gridlocked for hours. Skip it and get some exercise in the process. Public transportation is also an option, though we found that on the days when it was too wet to ride safely or comfortably, we could walk just as fast as the bus could get us there.
Getting to attend a conference like this is definitely an honor. Even if it wasn’t carried off without a hitch, it’s worth every bit of the cost of admission. Go, have a great time, then come back and tell us about it! We’ll see you next year at SXSW 2013!