SXSW 2017 Highlights


SXSW 2017 Highlights with PRO Tips from Me and Russ Wilson, UX Director, Google

SXSW-2017-Highlights-Useful-Usability-500x281SXSW 2017 had highlights and lowlights (and everything-in-between-lights). Here’s my highlights on some things that made SXSW beautiful, or ugly, along with some PRO tips for how you can better experience SXSW.

In addition, Russ Wilson, Director of UX at Google provides a few highlights to share with you.

SXSW (or South By Southwest to use the full title) is such a huge conference that no one person can tell its full story. So everything that follows is in the lens that was our experience with SXSW. What follows is a random sorting of my thoughts, observations and snide comments reflections about the good, the bad and the ugly of SXSW. I’ve included PRO TIPS to help you have a better experience at SXSW too.

And if you’ve attended SXSW, please be sure to add your highlights in the comments!

Russ Wilson, Director of UX, Google

Russ-Wilson-Google-170x204“At SXSWi I focus on three things: (1) networking, (2) breakfast tacos, and (3) craft cocktails.

I have attending many times over the past decade and find SXSWi to be a great opportunity to meet new people in Tech and catch up with old acquaintances.

I can’t go a day without a breakfast taco, my favorite is “The Otto” at Taco Deli. And of course Peche can’t be beat for the best cocktails in Austin! The real magic happens when you can combine all three!”

Craig’s SXSW 2017 Highlights

SXSW Trade Show:

I’m always Uh-Mazed at the number of SXSW attendees who either don’t know or don’t care about the trade show.

Are you F-ing serious?

This is the one event where you get to see the very latest in UX, User Experience and cool new tools and technologies. AND you get to talk to the actual people that are MAKING these things happen!

Click here to view latest job postings

Live! In Person!

Not on blog posts or articles or Skype or Hangouts or virtually via any other keeps-freezing-the-screen-image-just-when-things-get-good technology! LIVE! In Person! Remember meeting people face to face in PERSON?

[Big sigh]

Go to the trade show and talk with all those movers and shakers! OK, enough of that rant. Moving on!

Once again NASA had a big presence, as they did last year. What a rare opportunity to talk to the actual rocket scientists who are running NASA’s current and future missions. I spoke with the James Webb space telescope team.

What’s the Webb space telescope?

Only a telescope six times bigger and 100 times more powerful than Hubble, that’s all.


The fact that it reminds me of a triangular version of the Millennium Falcon only adds to its allure. Mmmmm! Science Fiction becoming Science Fact – how sexy!

NASA also had a hands-on (or should I say “hands-in”) demonstration of their new and improved space gloves for astronauts who are trying to do DIY fix-it projects in space. When a vacuum is introduced into the space glove experience simulator, it’s devilishly hard to hold anything with the current gloves, but the new gloves have haptic sensors that “push back” aka provide feedback to let the astronauts know when they are holding something, and with how much force. Makes holding things in space MUCH easier. Now you can hug someone in space and feel that hug, how awesome!


NASA had other fun things to do to inspire you to learn more about their missions. Needless to say I played it arctic cool and didn’t do anything as silly as pose inside a spacesuit! Well. Maybe just a little.


Other cool things at the Trade Show besides NASA was the launch of the new VUZE Camera 360 3D VR Video device by HumanEyes Technologies.  For less than $800 you get a stunning 8 lens, 4 microphone, super compact 360×180 degree HD video camera that includes stitching software to make putting your 360 degree content together a breeze. Developments like this mean shooting, editing and distributing VR content is becoming affordable to the masses. This should be a BIG step in opening up more VR content to the world.


For a sneak peak at what TV’s may look like in 2020 the 8k VR Tokyo Victory Ride exhibit featuring a 180 degree screen and fully animated 2 person chair was highly interesting. Anyone who’s experienced Soarin’ at Disneyland’s California Adventure will instantly recognize this miniaturized version. It was a difficult to see the actual video with all the light hitting the screen, but in the future with 8k video being beamed into your home you’ll have the same effect as you get looking through your windows today (ie, it seems REALLY real).

A Real Use Case for AR:

Other than gaming and travel videos, what the hell heck do you do with AR?

To catch an actual retail use for AR consider the Aurasma App which embeds Augment Reality info into any consumer’s mobile device, be at an iPad or smart phone. Using Aurasma technology, you can “embed” AR experiences and allow anyone using the Aurasma app to experience it, all without cumbersome headsets. This has huge ramifications for retail and I see a lot of potential here, if done right.

Here’s a brief video I shot with the product head of Aurasma on how Aurasma works:

Another exhibitor at the SXSW trade show was InstaVR.

I briefly interviewed Andrew Woodberry, Head of Marketing for and added a blog post about this company, which I believe is noteworthy. Their technology enables anyone to create professional VR applications with web-based WYSIWYG tools and no need to learn coding. This tool along with others will help open up content creation and production for Virtual Reality programming.


Schedule time to walk the trade show and especially focus on the technologies you know little or nothing about. They just may surprise you! And more than likely one or two of them will become things everyone hears about in the future.

VR and AR Session Highlights at SXSW

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) also made a big splash at this year’s SXSW. There was a ton of sessions devoted to AR and VR.

A very unique version of AR was the session that I snuck into at the very last second which was one of those lucky events where I *thought* the session was something completely different. I was delightfully surprised that it was actually something very new and wonderful!

This is why sometimes it’s a good idea to just try attending a new session that you’ve never heard of when attending SXSW – it’s like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get on the inside (Forrest Gump please forgive me).

Turns out the session “Augmenting Reality for Real” by Moment Factory was far cooler than I expected. They augment existing reality on a huge scale. For example, they turned a park forest into a dazzling light, sound and hologram show. They turned the structure of the new Bradley terminal at LAX into augmented reality works of art. They are also turning a bridge in Montreal into an interactive light show that inputs data from the current weather, people tweeting and pre-scripted shows into amazing light patterns. It even will match colors and movement to the seasons.

The “Shaping Reality for AR Storytelling” session with Martin Rabaglia (who is something of an AR pioneer) was interesting. The key thing is how critical it is to consider the entire experience that completely surrounds the user. Note that many in the VR and AR space are now creating their own special 360 storyboards to help design the experience of the user in the context of the 360 degree action, and vice versa.


Bots and AI Sessions at SXSW:

Another session which was absolutely jam-packed was “Applying Science to Conversational UX Design” which featured two IBM researchers who are setting the standards for the UX of Bots and AI. Based on the size of the massive and completely packed room, everyone is trying to figure out how to get their Bots to be more, well, human. Bob Moore and Raphael Arar, both IBM researchers, provided a fascinating look into how complex human conversation actually is.


This Young Moment: Designing for Hyperrealtime by Christine Todorovich of Frog was another interesting session. Her viewpoint is UX designers must design with time in mind. This is because with the advent of smartphone and “always connectedness” of social media, we have morphed the way we humans experience time. We are compressing time to ever smaller amounts, and expecting much more with each micro-moment. And thus designers must consider those ever-increasing expectations on the time-experience-moment in all interactions. To coin Mr. Spock, “Fascinating.”

She advises UX teams to add “time, sound and data” to the standard design elements of line, shape, form, texture, color and space. She offered seven suggestions for adding time to the design of the user experience, the one that most spoke to me was “make time intentional in your product.” Fascinating indeed!


My Guerrilla UX Studies in the Mist Talk at SXSW:

I’ve mentioned before that I was very honored and humbled to be picked to present at this year’s SXSW. My co-presenter, Elizabeth Gibson of AT&T and I presented “Guerrilla UX Studies in the Mist.” You can see the sneak peek of our Guerrilla UX Studies talk that I posted prior to the event if you’d like to learn a bit more about our presentation.


You’ll quickly become overwhelmed by the firehose of data you’re trying to take in at all these sessions. This means by the time you get back home, you’ll have forgotten about 80 percent of the cool tips, ideas and suggestions you learned at each session. Be sure to write them down using a notebook. Take pictures of the slides that are meaningful, and don’t forget to chat with the presenter for more details after the session. Get his or her business card too so you can follow up with any additional questions you may have later. Trust me, it’ll all be a blur when you get back home!

SXSW Keynotes

One of the best events at SXSW are the keynotes. I attended what I consider one of the best, which was with Buzz Aldrin, one of only six humans alive that actually walked on the moon. His session was excellent, and even though he is advanced in years his fire and passion about sending people to Mars is very contagious!



There are typically extremely long lines to get into the popular keynote sessions. You may want to consider my approach, which is to attend an earlier keynote in the ballroom where the next keynote is the one you want to see. This way, you are already in the room, and you can get a front row seat without the hassle of waiting in a line. A nice side benefit is you just may learn something new or interesting in the prior keynote. Note, this tip only works if they don’t completely empty the room by forcing everyone out after each session is over.

Comcast Social Media Lounge hosted by TechSet.

Brian Solis and the TechSet have been hosing the Blogger lounge at SXSW for 10 years now. They’ve done so with the help of sponsors, in this case Comcast who does an excellent job of recording and streaming many interviews with key movers and shakers during the Interactive portion of SXSW.  I love this lounge! It’s a great place to meet fellow bloggers and other lounge-lizards from all over the world.


You can recharge your batteries, both figuratively and literally. You don’t have to be a blogger to use the lounge, but you do have to give them your email address and other contact info (hey, there’s no free lunch). In exchange you get to unwind, plug-in and be entertained by watching awesome programming during Comcast’s broadcast interviews with many influential or up-and-coming techies, film-ies, music-ies and more.

And the free snacks and drinks are a nice way to fuel up before you head back out into the maelstrom that is SXSW.


There are typically a handful of lounges with most in or around the convention center. Use these lounges to recharge your batteries, get some free food and drink, do email ie get work done, chat with interesting people and just relax for a little while. You’ll be surprised at how much that little time-out really helps you get through the marathon that is SXSW.

SXSW Lines

The LINES! The Lines, Lines, Lines, Lines, LINES!!

Long-Line-Useful-Usability-365x246This line image above is NOT from SXSW, but it might as well have been! It sure is how we all felt waiting in those LINES!

Remember how the Grinch said he hated “The Noise, the Noise, Noise, Noise, Noise, NOISE!” Well plug in “Lines” for “Noise” and you get a sense of how I feel about SXSW lines.

Each year SXSW gets bigger and bigger. And each year the lines get worser and worser.

To their credit, this year the SXSW line-Gods tried a new strategy of having a “Primary” line and a “Secondary” line. The idea being if you are in the Interactive track, you should get a chance to be in an interactive session ahead of people in the Music or Film tracks, thus you line up (or as you Brits say, “queue”) in the appropriate Primary line if you have an interactive badge. Film badges are primary for film sessions, music badges for music sessions, you get the idea. Kind of a good idea, but of course it fails completely for their “Convergence” sessions (where all tracks are equal).

It also apparently was only used in the Convention Center. I attended many sessions in the JW Marriott and from what I could tell there were no primary and secondary lines. Worse, at the JW Marriott sometimes the SXSW-staffer-line-Gods lined us up in the wrong lines, only to cause a big ruckus when they tried to merge one line into another line (thank God we’re not allowed to carry guns in Austin. Oh wait. We are). Anyway, the technical term for this awful line experience is:


Another confusing thing was how EARLY the SXSW-staffer-line-Gods sent people into the rooms. Twice I was not allowed to enter a session even though I got there a full half hour early. WTF!

I was told by one rather snotty overworked SXSW-line-God,

“You should have got here earlier if you wanted to see this session!”


Considering I RAN from the Convention Center to the JW Marriott because the two sessions were back to back?

But later, at the end of the Interactive conference I had the rare good fortune to literally bump into Hugh Forrest, my hero because he’s the daddy of SXSW.


I mentioned to him my idea that perhaps SXSW can connect with the absolute GURUS of Line-Gods, Disney Parks.

NOBODY does lines better than Disney Parks!


Perhaps the SXSW team can meet with some of the Disney Parks Line-God-Gurus and chat about line management. I bet Disney has Uh-Maze-Ing ideas on how SXSW could improve moving massive amounts of people through lines with efficiency and amazing dexterity.


If you want to beat the lines pick a venue and stay there for that day. It won’t be easy because of all the great sessions throughout the many other venues, but trying to dash around the ridiculously overcrowded streets of downtown Austin to go from one hotel to the convention center and back is not productive. You’ll end up missing a session, then you’ve just blown an hour or more of extremely valuable time, because more than likely all the other sessions at that time are already full.

Conclusion: SXSW 2017 Highlights

In conclusion, the SXSW 2017 highlights I have presented here are just a very, very, very small piece of the tip of the iceberg for all the various experiences that make up SXSW.

Nobody can cover even 1% of everything that’s SXSW. There are TONS of sessions, trade show booth surprises, and film, music sessions and events that I didn’t cover. That’s because there’s just too much to do it all. I also left off the many parties that make SXSW something special.

My advice is, if you’ve not been to SXSW yet, make it a point to go. Oh, and don’t freak out if you feel overwhelmed, you will be, and it’s OK because that’s the way SXSW rolls.

Finally, if you DID go to SXSW I’m sure you’re screaming into your device right now something along the lines of:

“Hey! Craig! You missed XYZ!”

Well, be sure to write YOUR thoughts, feelings and emotions about YOUR experience with SXSW in the comments! After all, that way we all share our experiences and grow smarter together!