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Designing tomorrow’s experiences at SXSW

For a first timer attending the SXSW festival i must say that it was an immense experience. Having travelled to Austin a number of times and seeing it without SXSW the difference is staggering. All of the bars, restaurants, hotels and pretty much anything a stones throw from the conference hall get completely transformed. A Mexican theme restaurant becomes home to all of the latest innovations by ‘Dell, a local dive bar on dirty 6th street is transformed into a creatives paradise with live typography, free flat whites and Stefan Sagmeister on stage. It’s a total re-brand, i had the feeling of being inside a piece of Eboy artwork with all the biggest brand logos around me as 3D shop signs. Combine this with music, free food and free drinks and loads of goodies everywhere it’s almost like being at the best festival ever… but lets not get distracted we are here to learn and be inspired!
Its not possible to give an overview of SXSW without mentioning VR, it was the most popular topic there this year by far. I know this because i visited the SAP stand which uses big data to compare topics at SXSW to previous years. VR took the centre stage doubling in comparison to wearables to AI, AR and data.
However at times it left like VR was used as a carrot on the end of a stick to engage you into an experience or subject that you might otherwise pass by. This led to a slight minefield so you had to pick your experiences carefully, i saw virtually reality art exhibitions, psychedelic experiences and even a VR abortion experience… yes really. All of the big brands were in on the game too, McDonalds wanted to take you inside Happy Meal, Samsung had a roller coaster, but the stand out for me was Dell who used the HTC vive and motion sensor chairs to take you on 3 minute documentary into the ocean to learn about whales with the hope of raising awareness of their possible extinction. Overall this re-enforced a point a made in a previous issue about the rules being unwritten for VR and people still finding the best way to use the technology.
Another takeaway for me was that it’s not just about headsets any more. I experienced a ‘Dome VR’ set up that involved laying down on the floor with 360 spherical projections, this felt incredibly relaxing and much more inclusive of a wider audience. In terms of content creation the techniques were similar. Taking this one step further the experience i felt most memorable in terms of technical capability was an 8K VR cinema built by a Japanese company. It used a combination of crystal clear 8K footage, mixed with 3D technology and surround sound. The clarity was incredible, things not only felt that they popped out of the screen but the resolution made it feel incredibly tactile. Admittedly it’s less portable than an Oculus headset, and believe me i am not a fan of most 3D films (which feel like an added bonus to generate some extra revenue) however this felt like something i’d never experienced before.
Moving onto the panels and presentations, there were some interesting discussions from Analog Folk and Cyber Duck about how designers can avoid ‘dark patterns’ online. For example the way that Linkedin emails all of our contacts without us wanting to, trick questions on sign up forms or mis-direction on hyperlinks. As UX and UI designers we design for the future so it’s important to take these ethics into consideration so that we can help companies build platforms that people trust. Although it looks like these tricks are here to stay it’s important to be aware of and look for alternative ways to achieve the same results in a transparent way.
Adobe hosted a great series of talks (and won the prize for most free sweets) a stand out one being by Eric Natze, their artist in residence that believes creativity cannot be explained during a keynote and instead enforced his theory of process and play in order to stimulate creativity. As he says ‘creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating, do it because you want to as a necessity to evolve’. This rings true throughout the creative industry and is reminiscent of a similar points made by other top designers who also believe play is essential.
Lego gave a stand out talk and discussed how after going bankrupt 3 times they returned to their company ethos which was ‘how can we help kids?’ From here they’ve formed a number of major brand partnerships, moved into movies and broadcast and actively engaged in their wider community more. There is an important message here which is being increasingly discussed, and that’s that the most successful companies all have an ethos at their heart, one that is bigger than profit margins.
SXSW also has a medical and healthcare branch which led to many interesting discussions around the brain involving collaborations between creatives, scientists and psychologists.  A great example of this was a panel entitled ‘Heads and Hearts  : Consumer engagement where it counts’, essentially this involved some creatives and a neuroscientist who discussed branding case studies and the effect of ‘Oxytocin’ aka the ‘Love hormone’. In essence it says that you are more easily persuaded if this chemical is released, whats more if you are interacting with somebody releasing oxytocin the effect on persuasion is the same. For creatives i would say this rings true to believing in yourself and what you are doing, because people can sense the passion.
My favourite presentation along the same lines was a collaboration between ‘The Mill’ and an MIT neuroscientist in a panel entitled ‘1+1=Blue : The Science of Colour in Film’. This was a great presentation on colour as a process to figure out how your brain works.  As some people may or may not know the majority of colour is not created in the eye or in the outside world, but inside the brain, for this reason there are many unknowns into how this actually works. They dissected palettes by popular directors and then took the illusion of ‘the dress’ one step further by playing with colours in popular movie scenes and putting the viewer inside an MRI scanner to see what areas of the brain try to interpret colour. From here they have also developed their own app that visualises brain activity in reaction to colour. For me this re-enforced the importance of perception and how relative colour can be, this is still such a deep and interesting subject with so much more to learn.
Last but not least one of the standout sessions and a good closing statement was made by director JJ Abrams, he argued that we no longer have technical restraints when it comes to visual storytelling, we have the ability to achieve most things we want. We are now free to focus on an engaging story and can’t rely on superficial special effects as compensation. Now that we can achieve amazing results with special effects we should use them sparingly and only when necessary for the story. In his words “The challenge is that no matter what technology you are using, you want it to be invisible, you want the audience to have an experience that is as effortless as possible.”
Using this thinking for designers, it immediately makes me think of ‘invisible design’ and how we now have the technology to simplify processes for users. For 3D CGI designers, photo realism is now much easier to achieve, this can be integrated into our work to create more naturalism. Although these changes have happened quite subtly it’s an important shift in perception to adapt to.
Inspiration aside there were some great industry parties to attend to. Poke London created a ‘retreat’ out in the rural areas of Austin, that included drunk yoga, tarot card reading and a crystals workshop. IBM had a ‘cognitive lounge’ that made you a cocktail based on a survey of your personality, it also used data to analyse your tweaks and dissect your personality (i’m 31% cheerful). YouTube had a really cool venue that allowed you to interact with videos and analyse their analytics, they also premiered a documentary by a musician called ‘The Range’ who made music sampling unknown youtube artists with 100 views or less.
For any creatives that haven’t been i would highly recommend making the trip, i’m already excited about 2017.


Creative Director at Dazzle Ship
A designer who's work has been featured in numerous magazines and books. Computer Arts magazine named him a ‘Leading creative’. Hyper Island invited him collaborate as an 'Industry Leader'.

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