South by Southwest: A stream of consciousness report from the half-trenches

For those who aren’t familiar with South by Southwest, it’s a huge three-track conference that occurs in Austin, Texas each year around mid March. (It’s timed to coincide with UT’s spring break, which makes room for the conventioneers and avoids student-professional brawling.) The first track is music, and lots of bands come and play live, hoping for more fans and maybe a deal from talent scouts. The second track is film, and in addition to a regular set of conference panels and presentations, there is a concurrent film festival going on at the city’s many rockin’ cinemas. The third track is interactive (SxSWi), with conference presentations and a whole lot more.

The tiny company I co-owned way back in the day set up a booth in the trade show in 1996, the second year of the interactive track, so I have some history with the event. Last year and this I’ve been as a presenter. Some business travel required me to only attend the first two out of four days, so I only got to see half of the interactive track, but I’ll get to that in a bit. You see, presenters are given a gold pass, which gives us free access to any film. I was able to sacrifice some evening time to attend two movie screenings.


The first was RiP: A Remixer’s Manifesto. This film tackles the current tensions between copyright proponents on one side, with copyleft, open source, and the lively remix subculture on the other. Embodying its content, it was a thumpy, visually arresting introduction to people and salient events in the middle of the battle. The film was clear about its pro-copyleft bias, but painted the pro-copyright side with a broad brush, as a monolithic corporate evil. It didn’t seem to care that any artist might have legitimate concerns that their work and its payoff could be stolen by someone. As such, it felt like a lovely half-truth.

In the Q&A afterward one audience member raised this concern to the filmmaker and another audience member shouted in response, “Why don’t you just download the film and remix it to say what you want?” Which is essentially saying that remix culture grants carte blanche to tell half-truths, and that’s just not so.


The second film was Pontypool, a heady adaptation of Tony Burgess’ “Pontypool Changes Everything”, which is a tale of a zombie virus that is transmitted through language. As a linguistics, semiotics, and zombie fan, I was hooked from the premise. The pace was slower than you might expect from a zombie movie, and sometimes dipped too heavily into its own explanations and other times didn’t explain enough. Still, the acting was spot on, the gore delightfully gory, and the bulk of the movie delivered on both its high-minded and low brow promises. The first ending was interesting. The second inexplicable. I recommend it, but have a beer first.

Conference Content

Conferences are changing with the encroachment of technology. Time was that one went there to get away from common daily distractions and immerse one’s self in understanding “What’s new?” With the proliferation of mobile technologies and the Austin Convention Center’s fast wireless networks, even the conference sessions are becoming split-attention time. (The back wall of the main ballroom was lined with a solid wall of attendees whose faces were underlit with the ghostly white glow from their open laptops.) Plus, there is of course much of the same content on the internet. Part of me wonders if I would be better off just reading stuff online, but of course then you miss the presence and tenor of the presenter.

Plus, what’s new doesn’t always translate to what’s best or even what’s good, and so you have to listen to presentations with a pretty strong filter to distinguish what’s what. SxSWi has the additional complexity of encouraging its presenters to team up with others across the industry to discuss a given topic. This means that you’re often not watching the explanation of a single large, well-developed thought, but the answers to a set of lowest-common-denominator questions. At worst it becomes a struggle for attention of disparate agendas. At best it’s insight to many different, enlightened perspectives on the given topic.

Caveats aside, I did enjoy three panels a great deal in my two days.

Gestural UI: iPhone Taught Us Flick and Pinch. What’s Next?

Presented by Gabriel White from Punchcut.

As you can see from his slides, Gabe’s Photoshop mojo is mighty (as you can see) and the presentation flowed easily between practical “how-to”s and the more-important “so-what”s. His point about declarative vs. implicit input reminds me of a similar discussion we used to have in graphic design school (my undergraduate), i.e. People are quicker and better at seeing information than they are reading it, since it relies on “natural” observation rather than intellectual interpretation. White making the same case for gestural input: people are generally better at the more “natural” inputs that are tied to our bodies and our experience of the natural world than the learned inputs of mouse and keyboard, which have to be interpreted. I want to believe the shift is happening (exhibit 1 for the jury: iPhone) and that it will be implemented with grace, sense, and delight. Fortunately, we’re designers and hopefully will be able to help that exact thing happen. I’m inspired.

When Worlds Collide: Human Centered Design Meets Agile Development

Presented by Maria Giudice of Hot Studio and Alon Salant of Carbon Five

As readers may know, Cooper has been doing a lot of thinking and doing around Agile programming. This core conversation had a huge crowd, a mix of developers and designers. While there was an undercurrent from the developers of “waterfall is bad and old and if you do it you are an anachronism,” Maria and Alon kept things positive, steering conversation towards revealing attitudes and encouraging people to share practical stories about what worked for them. I especially liked hearing from other designers who had made a blended waterfall/Agile (Watergile? Agerfall?) approach work for their projects. That was heartening since I’d hate to see deep user research and laser focused targeting lost as a fundamental part of user centered design, even as the positives for Agile are maintained.

Blatant Self-Promotion

My own panel was a good success, too. I like presenting and like it even better when the audience seems to dig it. Make it So (Sexy) is a subset of the ongoing research by myself and Nathan Shedroff into the relationship between science fiction and interface design in mainstream science fiction. This is a family blog, so I won’t go into details on this content, but it was fun and well received. Thanks, Dad, for being in the audience and showing support even with the possibly-awkward topic. For those wondering, the presentation is really PG-13 so awkwardness: avoided.


The Screenburn feature of the conference is a guilty favorite, kind of a specialized tradeshow for the video game industry. It was smaller than last year, but still fun. I was duly impressed with the NVidia GeForce 3D goggles. Using electrochromic lenses (rather than the headachey red-blue kind), they really worked seamlessly and unobtrusively to bring 3D to the game. (Now if only we can add parallax tied to head motion). I already knew most of the games that were being shown, but it was fun to get lost for a bit running around with a gravity hammer anyway.


Of course networking is the other benefit to being in the same place as a ton of other practitioners, and for a borderline introvert who’s only begun to polish extrovert skills, this is a mixed promise. But there’s no shortage of it. I especially enjoyed the Razorfish (thanks Cliff) and io9 (thanks Annalee) parties, and had a good time meeting people and having some fantastic conversations. Of course our particular panel topic meant there was a good conversation topic at hand, but it didn’t hurt that friendly and really smart people were all around. High fives to everyone. Looking forward to being in touch.

A Matter of Utmost Concern

Last year I wandered away from the convention center for lunch and stumbled upon one of the most fantastic taco restaurants I’ve had the pleasure to visit: Torchy’s Tacos. I ended up eating there twice, and was greatly looking forward to it this year. Sadly, when I ventured out, it was gone. My iPhone told me there was one up the street, but after a hike I learned that that one was closed, too. It wasn’t until Monday that I was able to go with some friends to the South 1st street location to find the headquarters was still open, and indulge in both a Dirty Sanchez and Fried Avocado taco, while enjoying a perfect Texas spring day on the benches next to the river. So awesome. I spoke with the owner and found out that the 6th street locations I’d visited last year had to be closed because aside from the weeks of SxSW, it can get too sketchy for customers’ or employees’ comfort. Which I understand. And, ultimately, if it’s a taxi ride away, there will be fewer other attendees standing in line.

Anyway, despite what looked like slightly lower number of attendees (I blame the economy) and my only being able to attend half, SxSW proved to be a great, inspiring conference. I’m already looking forward to 2010.

Chris Noessel

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