SXSW 2013: Geeks Come to Austin for South by Southwest

SXSW isn't dead; it's just different.

March 8, 2013, 3:31 PM

AUSTIN, Texas, March 8, 2013 — -- Call it geek spring break. Call it geekfest. Call it whatever you want, but technology addicts from across the country have picked their heads up from their computer screens to meet -- and, yes, party -- face to face in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi).

The tech festival, which precedes the music and movie portions of the larger event, has always been a gathering of those on the cutting edge of technology services and innovations. And this year will be no different, although some have said the event has begun to lose its luster.

"We have faced that criticism for a long while," Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, told ABC News in a phone interview. "I still think that what we focus on in 2013 is what we focused on in 2004: creativity and inspiration."

According to Forrest, there are about 27,000 to 28,000 registered attendees this year, up about five perfect from last year to make it the biggest year yet. Those numbers don't take into account the thousands of people who attend the events around the festival. With those people factored in, it is expected that close to 45,000 people will be in Austin for the events, which begin today and end on March 12.

An Evolved Show

But Forrest says the growth has changed the type of gathering that SXSW has become. While it used to be a more intimate event where groups would gather to discuss products and software developers would meet to brainstorm, it now attracts all sorts of people, including large brands and marketers. Doritos, for instance, has set up a massive, tweeting vending machine again. Pizza Hut is holding 140-second interviews for a social media position.

"Yes, there is more marketing, but there are also a ton more innovative non-profits and hackers than there were before," Forrest said. "The show has grown and changed a lot, but that's a good thing. It would be boring if it was the same thing year after year."

Robert Scoble, who is notorious in the technology industry for knowing about all the next big apps and start-ups, agrees. "South-by is different now. The economic level has gone up; it's harder for the average Web developer to get in here. It's harder to get a place to stay or pay to get in," Scoble says. "That's why people say it is dead, because they can't get in, but it's just different than it used to be."

Different also means a few things to those people who have been attending and planning the festival for many years.

Forrest said one of the biggest changes this year is the prominence of the major speakers. Elon Musk, the CEO of Telsa and SpaceX, will be there. Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, Al Gore, and Newark Mayor Corey Booker will also speak over the next few days. Even Shaquille O'Neil will participate in a session; he will talk about his use of social media.

Hard, Not Software

Another big change, Forrest says, is the focus on technology hardware and devices. While SXSW has always been a show at which people check out the latest apps or social networking services, this year hardware start-ups are descending on Austin to showcase their wares.

Leap Motion will demonstrate its motion-sensing technology, which allows you to use your arms and hands as a mouse. Then there are the 3-D printing companies, like MakerBot, with its MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D scanner.

"3-D printing has a keynote spot, which means it's important and that we'll likely see a lot of odd little startups hawking 3-D businesses and wares," Lance Ulanoff, the Editor in Chief of Mashable, told ABC News.

Julie Uhrman, the CEO of Ouya, the company making a $99 open-source gaming console, is also one of the keynotes at the conference.

The One Big App?

Which leads to what many say is the biggest change at the show: the absence of the one big app. At the 2007 festival, a small start-up that let you send 140-characther updates took off -- it was, of course, called Twitter. Then in 2009, Foursquare took off at the geek-testing grounds.

"I think Twitter's launch at SXSW is something that has helped our growth immensely," Forrest said. "That said, it's a double-edge sword. Everyone is expecting something that's going to launch at SXSW that's going to overtake Twitter."

Scoble says that the days of that big app are past for this festival. "It is different than when Twitter or Foursquare got big; it is 45,000 people now, it's hard to get all those people excited about one app," Scoble said.

Still, many of the people in Austin will be testing and playing around with the latest apps and services, many of which might be the next big thing. Scoble said he believes that productivity apps, like TaskBox or Mailbox or Tempo, will make a big splash this year. Ulanoff said he thought messaging apps would continue to be the focus.

But ultimately, Forrest believes, we really won't even know this week if the next big thing will be talked about at SXSW 2013.

"We won't know what the breakout app or item was for a couple of years," he said. "No one could have imagined that Twitter grew to what it was or even what it was two years ago. We are a preview of the future. It's hard to judge what would be hot now."

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