SXSW 2013: Geeks Come to Austin for South by Southwest

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

ByABC News
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.