SXSW 2013: A Roundup of Topics and Trends... and Cats


Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, home to Technology in the Arts, recently hosted an official party for SXSW Interactive and Film 2013. The Austin, TX, conference/festival is often referred to as “Spring Break for Geeks,” because it offers technology industry professionals a chance to immerse themselves in the latest innovations while being served free alcohol every time they turn around. The CMU party, which we gave the tongue-in-cheek name Innovation City: Tomorrow’s Destination… Today, was co-hosted with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, and we used the late night event as an opportunity to showcase our city’s rising position in the modern U.S. economy. Pittsburgh was recently named by the National Venture Capital Association as one of the top cities for tech startups.

Distinguished service professor and director of the CIO Institute at CMU’s Heinz College Ari Lightman and I were on WESA 90.5’s Essential Pittsburgh last week talking about SXSW and the Pittsburgh party. You can listen to our interview online to learn more.

Listen Now >>

There were a few dominating trends at SXSW this year, one of which was an emphasis on hardware. This is unusual for a conference historically focused on software and mobile applications. Probably the most buzzed-about tech this year was the MakerBot Replicator 3D Printer, a desktop device that literally turns a 3D design into an actual, plastic item. (Allow me to offer a quick humblebrag, because we had three MakerBot Replicator 2 machines at the Innovation City party, courtesy of Pittsburgh’s new TechShop location.)

TechShop at Innovation City

TechShop at Innovation City

This was definitely the year of home 3D printing at SXSW. Sure, you’ll shell out more than $2,000 if you want a top-end device like the Replicator 2.0 (and more for the software required to create your designs), but when you think about the possibilities for artists and arts organizations, that’s really not breaking the bank. For instance, an artist could digitize his or her sculptures and sell scaled down versions at gallery shows.

Another supercool highlight of SXSW 2013 that had me geeking out was the Leap Motion controller, which employs hand and finger gestures for computer interaction. Remember in the movie Minority Report when Tom Cruise’s character waved his hands and moved things around on a transparent screen? Well, this is… not exactly like that, but we’re getting closer. The Leap Motion controller opens up a new world of opportunity for digital modeling and computer gaming. The elimination of physical devices like the mouse and keyboard is also great news for germaphobes!

Check out the Leap Motion controller in action:

[video id="3b4w749Tud8" site="youtube"][/video] Finally, I want to draw attention to a presentation I attended that was a bit off the beaten SXSW path. Katie Hill and Scott Stulen gave a truly engaging and inspiring talk, #catvidfest: Is This the End of Art?, about the Walker Art Center’s first ever Internet Cat Video Film Festival. More than 10,000 people showed up for the Walker’s festival, which was held in an open field beside the art center last summer. In fact, the event was part of the Walker’s “Open Field” initiaive, which is a summer endeavor that was launched as a relaxing and creative “gathering place.”

Through the cat video festival, Hill and Stulen made a very important point — even in our modern world of on-demand entertainment and online communities, we still crave physical interaction. The Walker has found an inventive and hilarious way to comment on modern “art” in this YouTube era, while taking the online offline and bringing people together in celebration of a common interest.

I encourage you to take a moment to read this piece from Jezebel by Madeleine Davies, who initially intended to rip the Walker’s Internet Cat Video Festival to shreds through online mockery. Davis discovered that “we’ve gotten to the point in which people gathering together and celebrating something positive is considered lame.”

Read the full Jezebel article >>

Speaking of cats, Mashable was at SXSW offering the opportunity for attendees to have their picture taken with the Internet's famous Grumpy Cat. People waited longer than 3 hours. Seriously.

Grumpy Cat

Grumpy Cat

I’d love to hear from some of you. Are you using 3D printers, or have you experienced any cool artistic uses of them? Do you have ideas for the Leap Motion in your organization? And are cat videos art? Would you wait in line for hours to have your picture taken with a cat?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.