AUSTIN, United States — With some 30,000 people in town for the 20th annual SXSW Interactive conference, not to mention hundreds of keynote talks, panels, exhibitions, meet-ups and parties to both participate in (and get distracted by) each day, you’d be forgiven for feeling completely overwhelmed by the whole affair.
The festival aims to provide a “view on the future” and is predominantly focused on the technology space. This year's conference was headlined by Elon Musk, a South Africa-born, American engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded the groundbreaking electric car company Tesla, as well as payment system PayPal, and is the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the world’s first commercial company to deliver cargo to and from the International Space Station. Musk spoke about a manned mission to Mars and shared a video of a reusable rocket that could, for the first time, land back on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter. Former American vice president Al Gore, likewise, touched on all manner of big ideas, including the genetic engineering of spider goats. Meanwhile, there was tremendous buzz surrounding Grumpy Cat, the real-life meme with whom conference attendees queued up to have their photograph taken.
But for the fashion industry — from which there’s a growing contingent that comes to town for the event — how much was relevant? The answer is lots.
Part of the beauty of SXSW is, of course, meeting up with digitally-minded people from across the sector. But, without doubt, the most powerful insights are gleaned by stepping outside the fashion bubble and learning from other industries. The challenge is being able to distill down the key takeaways. So here goes.
The Maker Movement
This year's festival was opened by Bre Pettis, CEO of New York-based 3D printing company MakerBot Industries, who said that cheaply available and easy-to-use desktop fabrication tools would give rise to “the next industrial revolution.”
“We’re empowering people to make stuff, faster and in more affordable ways,” he said, announcing the MakerBot Digitizer, a machine which can scan any physical object between three and eight inches tall and replicate it. Think of it as "a real-world copy and paste," he added.
In another talk, Peter Weijmarshausen, CEO and co-founder of 3D printing marketplace and community Shapeways, said: “3D printing is so incredibly quick that what we’re doing is design-manufacturing.” Indeed, soon we will be able to not only buy an item online and print it out at home, but manipulate it first, to create a truly personalised product. Though the textiles aren’t quite there yet, a dress that's downloadable in different fabrications and, better yet, a perfect fit, isn’t that far off.
Mike Senese, a senior editor at Wired, expects brands to swiftly take hold of this opportunity. NASA, Ford and Nokia are already doing so, while Nike, without the large official presence it had last year to launch its FuelBand, was quietly using the networking effects of SXSW to spread news of its new Vapor Laser Talon shoe. Created for American football players, it features a lightweight 3D printed plate, crafted using Selective Laser Sintering technology (SLS) and designed to improve acceleration.
Kimberly Ovitz, who featured 3D printed jewellery in her Autumn/Winter 2013 New York Fashion Week show, this February, was also on site at SXSW. She said that, for the fashion industry, the beauty of the technology at this stage comes down to timelines. Not only can she better keep up with consumer demand by delivering her jewellery within a two-week timeline, but she's also that much further ahead of the fast fashion outlets who copy her.
Digital Meets Physical
Importantly, hardware dominated the discussion at this year’s SXSW, marking a major move away from the app-focused conversation of the past (SXSW was the launchpad for both Twitter and Foursquare in 2007 and 2010, respectively).
Unsurprisingly, Google Glass got a lot of airtime, with a number of individuals spotted trying out the augmented reality headsets around the festival’s convention center and a live demonstration hosted by Timothy Jordan, Google’s senior developer advocate, who showcased third party apps from companies like The New York Times and Path and introduced the tech crowd to Google Glass' Mirror API. Expect much more on this front.
Google also introduced a talking shoe (that reminds wearers to be more active) in collaboration with adidas as part of the tech giant's “Art, Copy and Code” initiative. It was prime example of the so-called 'Internet of Things,' the trend towards everyday objects becoming networked. Although still just a concept, the trainers feature sensors that track a user’s speed and performance and speak to them directly (via a speaker) or their phones (via Bluetooth) to encourage movement.
Leap Motion, meanwhile, was widely called "the Nike FuelBand of 2013" in terms of the buzz it generated. A device about the size of a USB stick that plugs into any Mac or PC, it allows users to control a screen with hand gestures alone. Technically, it’s a step on from Microsoft's Xbox Kinect for the precision it allows. The device can track individual finger movements with accuracy up to one-hundredth of a millimetre. It also retails for only $79.99 and will ship in May.
Amidst all the new technology launches and cross-pollination of big ideas, came a call for greater collaboration. For Elon Musk and Al Gore, that meant fostering collaboration amongst institutions to solve major problems that no single company could address alone. For many brands, it meant embracing their consumer communities.
The team at Lego shared their focus on being “fans of our fans.” With the launch of its crowdsourcing site Cuusoo, the company is empowering their most engaged customers to design their own products, the best of which are actually manufactured. Peter Espersen, head of online communities for the Lego Group, said there was value, not only in listening to your consumers, but setting goals on what you hope to achieve from them.
PepsiCo hosted a similar panel (the company's fans have helped produce ads for the Super Bowl and create new flavours of Lays Potato Chips). “When you give people a forum to express themselves, you unearth things you never expected to find,” said Jen Saenz, Frito-Lay's senior director of brand marketing. She addressed the idea of creating a circle of advocacy that could likewise apply to any fashion house: sourcing information, doing something with that information, feeding that back to fans, listening to their reaction and acting upon it.
Not surprisingly, data was a big part of this conversation. In particular, Saenz highlighted the deep level of insight Frito-Lay now has about its customers' flavour preferences across geography, information it would never have been able to source at such scale using traditional methods.
But despite the focus on crowdsourcing, the importance of powerful storytelling (beyond what the facts, figures and feedback might show) rang throughout the festival. Ultimately, breaking through the noise, said Gary Goldhammer, senior vice president at H+K Strategies, means adding something remarkable and unexpected. “What makes for great storytelling is 1+1=3.”
Rachel Arthur is the global senior editor of digital media and marketing at online trend analysis and research service WGSN.