SXSW 2017

Another SXSW has come and gone, and it was a time to say goodbye (and hello) to the movers and shakers of the preeminent music, film, and technology festival. Here’s a recap on the technological aspect through the eyes of your favorite technatics here at Helios.

Something big was missing this year, and its name is Samsung. Sure, the SamsungNEXT Lounge was a great place to recharge and catch some interactive art, but if you were looking for the next generation of roller coaster VR or the familiar interactive vending machine then there was a vacancy on your dance card. Remember last year’s hybrid multisensory VR experience at the Bud Light Lounge? There was no second coming there, either.

These very noticeable omissions in offerings were indicative of a trend across footprints – SXSW is no longer about casting a wide net of ‘surprise and delight’ for all attendees. Marketing is more focused, the badge hierarchy matters more now, and the festival is a different experience for the everyman than it is for the influencer or the big spender. And that’s not a bad thing.

When we landed on Austin turf, we prepared for an exaggerated version of last year – an essential ‘Go Big Or Don’t Come’ approach to experiential – which had translated into VR-or-nothing across multiple brands. The entire spectrum of interactive outside of VR was anemic in 2016, which generally means that opportunities were missed to tell awesome stories using less obvious technologies. After all, good experiential isn’t about shoehorning technologies; it is about telling an on-brand story that people enjoy, remember, and share.

In that respect, this year showed multiple brands come out the gate ready to make a splash, and splash they did. The following is our highlight reel of tech-based narratives, and as you’ll see that our favorites used a plethora of platforms to be the buzzed-about darlings of SXSW.

One couldn’t make it a block without hearing about HBO’s Escape Room, a space promoting Game of Thrones, Veep, and Silicon Valley. With a continuous line of over two hours, people flocked (often in the rain) for the chance to work through the ultimate escape room experience. They were not disappointed – as small groups of people collectively solved problems in the Oval Office, a kitchen, and somewhere North of the Wall, little surprises kept all on their toes until completion. The payoff was a GIF of sitting in the Iron Throne – the only return piece from last year that we could see. While it wasn’t heavy on tech, the space was heavy on narrative and immersion.

Other than HBO, the “must-see” branded experience was the National Geographic (NatGeo) Camp. In contrast to HBO, technology heavily drove this space, beginning with the opportunity to learn a bit about light with a HoloLens solution before moving onto a tablet AR experience that brought to life physical and natural wonders. Upstairs, guests were able to star in their own commercials of the new show, Further. With a videographer and director on-site, professional-style shareable content was created and received a few hours later to guests’ e-mails.

For those who love to keep a finger on the pulse of the tech pipeline, Japan Factory and Wow Factory brought the goods in a shared space saturated in R&D projects and interactive virtual gaming. Japan Factory brought national culture in spades with its décor and skill with sushi lunches, a holographic concert, and AI robotics. WOW Factory, a Sony innovation lab, featured interactive multiplayer VR games that were next level…but my attention was on the interactive projection mapping wall-scale Spiderman experience as well as a series of “superception” prototypes that incorporated projection with shape and color recognition, music creation, and architectural exploration using dumb surfaces. If any of this piques your interest, visit their websites and be a little dumbfounded yourself.

Honorable mention goes to the Armani space, which was hosting its third “Films of City Frames” initiative, for its uber-innovative use of Facebook messenger bots in quizzing and prize-handing. While the bot solution may not have been entirely seamless, Armani again positioned itself as a trailblazer by converging fashion, film, and technology in an understated but classy presentation.

SXSW is always a good time, but it is also always a homework assignment for us – What are the trends? What should we be evangelizing for our clients? What’s working and what’s not out there in experiential? I walked away from the festival with a huge sense of validation, seeing that the spaces that had created the most buzz were those with a distinct existing narrative, like HBO and NatGeo. It is incumbent on the technology entities moving forward to provide an equally compelling narrative in their spaces – and this is often exactly where Helios starts its conversations with clients. Story is always king…and this year it sat on an Iron Throne.