Austin American-Statesman Omar L. Gallaga column
Feb 10, 2013 (Austin American-Statesman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Exactly one month from now, the South by Southwest Interactive festival will be in mid-grok, with more than 25,000 attendees geeking out to panels, parties and entire city blocks of events that surround the official programming.
What was once a modest offshoot in the '90s focused on multimedia and the rising World Wide Web has since the mid-2000s exploded into a cultural conference about everything and anything related to tech. That may be mobile apps, social networking, hacker culture and dozens, if not hundreds, of other conversational threads.
The fest, which runs March 8-12, is not everybody's tech nirvana. Some feel the fest has gotten too crowded, that startups and marketers have overrun Interactive, or that the ever-increasing registration rates and costs of attending (not to mention the downtown hotel crunch) have made things less than ideal.
If you're attending, considering going, or just planning to observe from afar, a month out is a good time to look at what's on offer this year and how the festival appears to be shaking out.
Here's what to expect:
What will people be talking about Often, the discussion at SXSW Interactive has a lot to do with who the keynote speakers are as well as the number of panels chosen about a particular topic. Based on that criteria, the hot topics will include space travel; crowdfunding; so-called "big data"; Maker / DIY and design culture, including the coming 3-D printer revolution; and the role of hackers in society.
Space travel will be well represented by keynote speaker Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, and by plenty of panels about the future of private space travel. Video game legend and astronaut Richard Garriott de Cayeux attracted a large crowd last week for a pre-SXSW event on the topic, predicting that commercial space travel will one day be available to everyone.
Crowdfunding, as represented by the rise of Kickstarter and other avenues for artists and developers to raise money to bring projects to life, is another big topic. Keynote speaker Matthew Inman of the popular online comic "The Oatmeal" has created several successful crowdfunding campaigns, including one to create a museum for inventor Nikola Tesla. Keynote speaker Julie Uhrman will talk about Ouya, a $99 Android-based video game console that was successfully crowdfunded. It's expected to be released in June.
The face of big data and number-crunching analysis, Nate Silver, a former keynote presenter, will be featured again this year. He will likely talk about his 2012 election predictions and his book, "The Signal and the Noise."
The January suicide of hacker activist Aaron Swartz will be fresh on the minds of many attendees. Festival director Hugh Forrest said that there will likely be some official programming added to discuss the issues that Swartz's suicide raised, not only about government prosecution but about mental health in the tech world.
Opening speaker Bre Pettis of MakerBot and keynote speaker and design guru Tina Roth "Swissmiss" Eisenberg will lead discussions on the rise of 3-D printing and design, respectively. One provocative session at the festival will feature Cody Wilson, a University of Texas law student who created software that could allow those with a 3-D printer to manufacture guns.
And those aren't all the speakers ... In the past two weeks, the festival has added three high-profile speakers to the lineup. Al Gore, who has a new book out called "The Future," was a last-minute addition last year and will return for an interview with Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg. Broadcaster Rachel Maddow and controversial file-sharing entrepreneur Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload, are also featured speakers new to the lineup. Dotcom, who lives in New Zealand, will beam in via Skype.
Other high-profile speakers who are featured this year include outspoken Whole Foods co-CEO and co-founder John Mackey; TV writer Chuck Lorre in a session with fantasy writer Neil Gaiman; Craigslist creator Craig Newmark; World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee; Jane and Sassy magazine founder Jane Pratt; NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal; and SXSW lucky charm, author Bruce Sterling.
Speakers will likely be added up to the day the fest starts as Gore and Jimmy Fallon were in 2012.
How crowded will it be Last year, attendance at the fest was officially 24,569, a 27 percent jump from the previous year. This year, says Forrest, "Our growth level has clearly slowed down as compared to the last three or four years. This is ultimately a good thing."
The festival has struggled with growth with a limited supply of hotel rooms in downtown Austin as well as managing registration and panels that can sometimes generate long lines.
That congestion and the increased interest in tech startups are reasons the festival has created another Interactive event, SXSW V2V, which will debut in Las Vegas, Aug. 11-14. Expect some attendees on the business side to discuss whether they'll be going to that event as well.
Changes and new stuff Forrest says there's growing interest in technology in fashion, food and even comedy (witness the wave of comedy podcasts, some of which will be featured at the fest).
And for those without badges, SXSW Gaming at the Palmer Events Center is free as is SouthBites, an area of food trucks at Rainey and Driskill streets to be curated by chef Paul Qui. Though nothing formal has been announced yet, the fest also typically live streams some of its programming online, even for those without badges.
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